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Don't disturb ash, debris from Marshall Fire, health officials say

Ash might contain toxic substances and cancer-causing chemicals, according to Boulder County.

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — Residents returning to homes burned in the Marshall Fire should not sift through the ash and debris, which might contain toxic substances.

Boulder County Public Health (BCPH) issued that warning on Wednesday in regards to some organizations offering sifters designed to help homeowners recover belongings in the debris.

Ash contains small amounts of cancer-causing chemicals, and ash and debris from burned structures might contain toxic substances from synthetic and other materials, BCPH said.

"BCPH strongly recommends that residents do not attempt to remove debris or clean up properties that have been damaged or destroyed and under no circumstances should residents disturb ash regardless of what personal protective equipment (PPE) they may have," BCPH says in a news release.

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Older buildings may contain asbestos and lead, the health department said.

The ultra-fine particles in the ash can go deep into the lungs, enter the bloodstream and damage internal organs. Even an N95 mask can allow small amounts of ash to reach your lungs. 

Bill Hayes is the county's air quality coordinator. He told 9NEWS on Thursday that he understands homeowners wanting to find anything salvageable in the wreckage, but he hopes they take this warning seriously. 

"At times like this, finding that one memento in the rubble can provide some solace. I get that, but it’s not worth the risk to your health," Hayes said. "This level of trauma, it already puts a significant strain on you physically and mentally, and so we don’t want to add to that physical strain by exposing ourselves unnecessarily to these toxins."

Boulder County issued the warning of toxic ash on Wednesday, days after a number of homeowners were allowed back on their property. When 9NEWS asked why the department waited so long to share the warning, they said they never saw so many relief organizations give away sifting tools before. 

"Every disaster we learn something new and we’re better prepared for the next disaster," Hayes said. "It’s really the first time we’ve seen a very orchestrated effort by these organizations to put the sifters in people's hands, and so we’re not going to be stopping people from going into their properties and doing that, but we are concerned when these national relief organizations come in and hand these people a sifter, it basically tells people, 'Hey, this is safe' and it's not."

Fire professionals recommend only salvaging items that can be removed without sifting through ashes, BCPH said.

"Recovering personal and precious possessions is important and emotional to those who have lost so much due to the fires," the release says. "Never compromise your safety or health in an effort to recovery belongings."

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For those whose houses in the burn area were not damaged by the fires, Boulder County offers these tips for safe cleanup:

  • Stay indoors or leave the burn area on windy days.
  • Keep doors and windows closed.
  • Check air filters regularly and replace them when visibly soiled for homes with central air.
  • Use rugs inside and outside entrances to catch any possible debris on shoes.
  • Avoid tracking debris into the house and remove shoes.
  • Wear proper PPE when cleaning ash: N95 or equivalent mask, latex or nitrile gloves, and eye protection.
  • Use a damp mop or cloth to clean away visible dust in the house.
  • Don't use harsh chemical cleaners or vinegar, as they can react with chemicals in the ash. Soap and water are adequate.
  • Soft surfaces and fabrics should be laundered or discarded.
  • Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter system.
  • For exterior cleaning, spray with water. Don't sweep ash. Consider wearing an N95 or equivalent mask or respirator.

RELATED: Religious group’s land tied to Marshall Fire investigation, sheriff says

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