Top 10 Causes of House Fires

Cooking Equipment
When a pot or pan overheats or splatters greases, it can take seconds to cause a fire. Stay in the kitchen when cooking, especially if using oil or high temperatures; most kitchen fires occur because people get distracted and leave their cooking unattended. Keep combustibles (e.g. oven mitts, dish towels, paper towels) away from heat sources.

Heating Equipment
Have your furnace inspected annually by a qualified technician, and your chimney cleaned and inspected annually. Keep portable heaters at least one metre away from anything that can burn (including curtains, furniture, and you), and don’t use your heaters to dry shoes or clothes. Install a carbon monoxide alarm to alert you to deadly carbon monoxide gas.

Careless Smoking
Make the bedroom off-limits to smoking, and supervise smokers who may become drowsy (i.e. on medication, drinking) or forget to extinguish their cigarette. Use large, deep ashtrays; never place an ashtray on or near anything that will burn; and check furniture for fallen cigarettes/embers (a butt can smoulder for hours before causing furniture to burst into flames).

Electrical Equipment
Ensure the following:
1) Your electrical appliances don’t have loose or frayed cords/plugs
2) Your outlets aren’t overloaded with plugs
3) You’re not running electrical wires under rugs or heavy furniture
4) You’re not overusing an extension cord. Be careful about do-it-yourself electrical projects; many home fires are caused by improper installation, so use a licensed electrician.

Keep candles in a sturdy holder on a level surface, away from combustible materials and out of the reach of children or pets. Blow them out before leaving the room.

Children Playing with Fire
Children cause fires out of curiosity (what happens when something burns) or mischief (they’re angry, upset or destructive, and fire is a major taboo to break). Kids may be involved in fire play if you find matches or lighters in their room/possession, smell sulfur in their room, and/or find toys or other personal effects that appear melted/singed.

Inadequate Wiring
Older homes and apartments can have inadequate wiring – a fire and an electrical hazard. Some warning signs: 1) you have to disconnect one appliance to plug in another; 2) you have to use extension cords or “octopus” outlets extensively; 3) fuses blow or circuit breakers trip frequently; 4) lights dim when you use another appliance.

Flammable Liquids
Flammable liquids – fuels, solvents, cleaning agents, thinners, adhesives, paints, and other raw materials – can ignite or explode if stored improperly. The vapors can easily ignite from even just high temperatures or weak ignition sources (one spark of static electricity). Don’t store flammable liquids near a heating source but, ideally, outside the home in a cool ventilated area, in approved containers.

Christmas Trees/Decorations
Keep the tree in a stand that will hold 2-3 liters of water, and top it up daily. Keep the tree away from all heat sources, including radiators, furnace ducts, television sets, and fireplaces. Check decorative lights before placing them on the tree, and discard any frayed or damaged lights/cords. Never place candles on or near the Christmas tree.

As part of regular maintenance, clean removable parts (inside and out) with soapy water. Spray the connections with soapy water to check for potential leaks; watch if bubbles form when you open the gas. Use barbecues away from your home, deck rails, tablecloths, and tree limbs. Use barbecues outdoors, never indoors (including garages).

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Health Effects of Radon

Radon is one of the “noble” gases (such as neon and argon). It is a naturally occurring element that is produced from radium which is part of the uranium decay series. Radon has a half-life of 3.82 days and during decay produces particles called radon daughters. These particles are solid, short-lived radioisotopes that emit alpha particles. When the radon daughters release these alpha particles into the lungs, the alpha particles penetrate cells and cause DNA damage.

Lung cancer
The primary health effect of radon is lung cancer. When the radon daughters release these alpha particles into the lungs, the alpha particles penetrate cells and cause DNA damage. The damage is cumulative and can eventually cause cancer. Animal studies have shown that radon can cause cancer without the contribution of other pollutants (e.g., tobacco smoke).

The fact that radon exposure causes lung cancer was recognized first in uranium miners. One study evaluated American Indian miners who were non-smokers, and found a threefold increase in lung cancer over that experienced by non smokers who were not miners in the same community.

Smoking increases the risk of lung cancer dramatically. Early evidence for the role of smoking is the fact that before manufactured cigarettes were available, lung cancer was considered a rare disease (in spite of ongoing exposure to radon). Following the introduction of manufactured cigarettes, the incidence of lung cancers rose quickly to the point where it is now one of the most common cancers. For lifelong non-smokers, absolute risks (as opposed to excess risk due only to radon) of lung cancer (for those still alive) are 0.4%, 0.5% and 0.7% respectively at radon concentrations of 0, 100 and 400 Bq/m3. In cigarette smokers exposed to the same radon concentrations, these risks are 10%, 12% and 16% (Darby et al., 2005).

The EPA is strongly focused on the reduction of radon exposure primarily because of the enormous public health impact of its role in lung cancer in smokers. Mendez et al. (2009) analyzed smoking trends in the US and concluded that a better approach would be to concentrate on programs to reduce smoking.

Radon and Childhood Leukemia
There is some evidence that excessive radon exposure can increase the risk of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children. One study demonstrated a 56% increase in the rate of this type of leukemia per 1000 Bq/m3-years increase in exposure (Raaschou-Nielsen et al., 2008; Harley & Robbins 2009).

Radon and Pancreatic Cancer
Radon exposure may be a significant risk factor for pancreatic cancer in African Americans, American Indians, and Asian Americans. Testing and mitigating homes for indoor radon may decrease the incidence of pancreatic cancer in these groups (Reddy & Bhutani 2009).

Radon and Other Cancers
One study of miners revealed some evidence for a relationship between other pulmonary cancers and cumulative radon exposures, but unknown factors could have influenced their results either negatively or positively.

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The Need For An Exhaust Fan

The Need For An Exhaust Fan

A common call we get is about mold/water damage above a shower. The first question I ask is if they have an exhaust fan. Mostly the answer is no. When you take a hot shower the steam will naturally rise up to the ceiling, leaving it wet for hours on end. Eventually, mold will be able to grow and your only course of action is to have the ceiling removed. By installing an exhaust fan, the moist air will be vacuumed into the ducting and filtered to the exterior. Never just vent your fan into the attic, because then you will have an entire attic covered in mold. If you do have an exhaust fan and are still getting damage above your head, it could be because the fan is inadequate in size, or the fact that the fan isn’t located in the proper area.

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Health Effects of Asbestos – Part 1

Nature of Asbestos
Asbestos is a mineral with a unique crystal structure. Individual crystals of asbestos are long and thin (needle like) and these crystals occur as a “palisade” in tightly packed bundles. When disturbed, these bundles break and crystals are released individually, either whole or as fragments. This crystal structure is responsible for the health effects of asbestos. The fibers are strong and resemble those of cellulose in that they can be woven and spun. On the other hand, they are silicates and not digestible as are cellulose fibers. There are two overall types of asbestos. The most commonly used in industry is chrysotile asbestos. The second group is amphibole asbestos which is divided into actinolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, crocidolite and amosite.

Health Effects of Asbestos
Health effects of asbestos depend on inhaling the fibers. Most of these fibers are immediately exhaled. However, some are inhaled deeply into the lungs and become lodged in the tissues. Because they are minerals, enzymes that would facilitate their digestion are not present, so they probably remain in the lung throughout life. The amphibole types of asbestos appear to remain in the lungs the longest, which may lead to increased risk of disease. Lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other lung and pleural cavity disorders may result from significant exposure to asbestos. Health effects from asbestos exposure may continue to progress even after exposure is stopped.

Asbestosis is not a cancer, but rather a result of inflammation and irritation of lung tissue that result from inhaling the fibers. It is a serious disease that leads to lung scarring, difficulty breathing, and an impaired ability to transfer oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of the lungs. The progress of the disease is slow, with first diagnosis generally occurring 10-20 years following initial exposure. Symptoms of asbestosis include shortness of breath, cough with mucus, chest tightness, chest pain, loss of appetite, and crackling sounds in the lungs. Risks for the development of asbestosis primarily are controlled by the amount of exposure, the length of time over which exposure occurs, and the type of asbestos inhaled.

Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is a malignant tumor that grows within the lung, invading the air passages and gradually blocking them so that air exchange is not possible. The disease is generally diagnosed 10-15 years following initial exposure. It is most likely in cigarette smoking. Symptoms include cough, wheeze, weight loss, labored breathing, and coughing up blood. Persistent chest pain and anemia may also be present. The combination of asbestos and smoking create greater risk for lung cancer than the sum of the individual risks for these exposures.

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Health Effects of Asbestos – Part 2

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the lining of the lungs and sometimes the peritoneum. Exposure to asbestos is the primary cause for mesothelioma. Diagnosis generally occurs at least 30 years following the first exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma leads to a build up of fluid in the pleural cavity or peritoneum. In the pleural cavity the fluid leads to shortness of breath and chest pain. In the peritoneum, there may be swelling and pain, and even bowel obstruction, anemia, and fever. All of these symptoms are common to other diseases as well, so it is important to inform the physician of asbestos exposure.

Exposure to Asbestos
Asbestos is a part of the natural environment, and is present in ambient air and water. Concentrations in ambient air range from 1×10-5 to 1×10-4. People are more likely to experience asbestos-related disorders when they are exposed to high concentrations of asbestos, are exposed for longer periods of time, and/or are exposed more often. Disease may result with exposures for 40 years to concentrations of 0.125 – 30 fibers/ml. Inhaling longer, more durable asbestos fibers (such as tremolite and other amphiboles) probably contributes both to the risk and severity of asbestos-related illness.

Disease-causing exposures occur primarily in asbestos miners and in industrial workers that routinely handle asbestos. Asbestos remediators may also be at risk. Building occupants are unlikely to be sufficiently exposed to lead to illness. However, mesothelioma has been diagnosed in family members of asbestos miners, and residents who live close to asbestos mines.

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Nearly a month ago, upon inspecting a property which caught fire, I came upon an abandoned cat. Not knowing what to do, I found out about an organization called Red Paw Emergency Relief. I met Jen Leary who rescued and named the cat Bailey, and ever since, I get asked about her status. I’m so happy to tell everyone that Bailey has been adopted. She’s found a new home and a new start with great people who are giving this gentle cat a second chance. Remember, there’s always a choice when it comes to your pets and fostering animals in need can lead to them finding forever homes, like Bailey.

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To donate and support the Red Paw Cause, click here: Red Paw Donations
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Water Damaged Floors

Water Damaged Floors

Here’s a photo of a hallway which was flooded and the water damage was so extensive, that even the baseboard is being lifted. Floors in such conditions can not be restored, as the only course of action is to completed remove it, dry the sub-floor, and reinstall new hardwood flooring. This particular property was a vacant rental to which no one was checking on and a pipe burst. Such cases seemingly always get denied from any insurance policy because they are vacant. This project was a complete out of pocket expense for the home owner.

Mold Growth & Sporulation in Buildings – Part 2

    Each stage of fungal growth (spore germination, vegetative growth, sporulation) has a specific set of conditions that is optimal. Important conditions in this set are nutrient types and concentrations, light, temperature, oxygen and water availability. Water availability (i.e., water activity) is one of the most important of these. Each fungus has optimal water activities for spore germination, radial growth and sporulation. At optimal water activity, temperature changes will affect each of these processes. Optimum germination, growth and sporulation occur only when all environmental conditions are ideal. For example, Stachybotrys chartarum spores will swell and begin to germinate in distilled water, while Penicillium chrysogenum spores will germinate only if some soluble nutrients are present in the water. These properties have evolved as part of the fungal defense mechanism. The ability of Stachybotrys chartarum spores to germinate in pure water enables this fungus to grow under conditions that are not suitable for many other fungi. The ability of Aspergillus restrictus to grow at a very low water activity (0.69) was measured under optimal conditions for all of the other variables. As these other conditions depart from the optimum, more water is needed to allow continued growth. Practically speaking, this means that most xerophilic fungi will not grow at very low water activities under normal building conditions.

    There are sensors on the market that are being used to test the potential for fungal growth on building surfaces. They consist of specific spore types sandwiched between water vapor permeable membranes. They are placed on a surface and read after a number of hours. If germination occurs, then growth is considered possible. The sensors are available with different kinds of fungi, recognizing the fact that different fungi have different optima for spore germination. One should remember, however, that optimal germination conditions may not be the same as those for growth and sporulation, and a positive test does not necessarily mean that conditions are suitable for growth. On the other hand, if germination does not occur, it still may be possible for some other spore type to germinate under the given conditions.

    Now, how do we use this information on fungal characteristics to prevent fungal growth? We usually talk about controlling water activity in buildings, and this is the most important and best approach for preventing fungal growth. Controlling water activity in buildings is accomplished by controlling relative humidity and keeping temperatures high enough so that condensation does not occur. This does work. Dry buildings do not become moldy even when really delicious fungal food is available. There are wall-surfacing materials available now that will not hold water. Although still relatively expensive, these materials provide time following water incidents before fungal growth occurs. Where water is inevitable, the next step is to control nutrients. Thus, leaks onto plaster walls rarely result in fungal growth, and hard flooring (tile, marble, hardwood) provide little intrinsic nutrient and can be kept free of accumulated dirt and dust.
    Biocides that are included in some paints seek to prevent either germination or growth or both. Some do prevent most spores from germinating but have no effect on the growth rate of those spores that are biocide resistant. Others allow germination but slow or prevent subsequent growth. The important point to remember with biocides is that fungi are adaptable. Optimal requirements for germination, growth and sporulation are genetically determined, and they can change with genetic recombination. Resistance to biocides also changes so that, eventually, some spore is likely to be able to resist even the most potent biocide.

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Mold Growth & Sporulation in Buildings – Part 1

A driving factor in building construction is the continuous pressure to save time and money. These pressures usually result in gradual shifts in how buildings are made. Beginning in the late 1940’s, these gradual shifts have resulted in better and better conditions for fungal growth. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in schools. In the 1940’s and before, schools were built of stone, brick and marble. Floors (at least in urban schools) were either hardwood (nutrient poor for most fungi) or marble. Walls were tile or plaster. Windows were operable, and the buildings were not tight, resulting in plenty of ventilation. Now, we have floors covered with carpeting, which holds water and nutrients. Walls are built of gypsum board that is filled with nutrients. Windows are sealed, which requires costly energy to ventilate, leading to low ventilation rates and accumulation of water. We can live with these changes if we understand how fungi grow so that we can efficiently limit their growth.

Molds are spread by spores, each of which contains all the genetic material to make a new colony. While traveling through the air or on your clothes or other carriers, they are dormant, and chemical reactions in the spore are going on very slowly. When a spore lands on a dry surface, it remains dormant and will eventually die. If water is present, it is drawn into the spore by a process known as osmosis. With the water are dissolved nutrients. The concentration and type of nutrients depends on the material on which the spore lands. If there is enough water and if the nutrient content is appropriate, then the spore will swell, and a germ tube will appear. The germ tube releases enzymes (catalysts) that help in the digestion of insoluble nutrients (e.g., starch, cellulose, etc). If the appropriate nutrient is available, the enzymes will break it down into soluble fragments, which will be absorbed into the germ tube, stimulating continued growth. The size the colony reaches depends on both environmental conditions and the genetics of the fungus. Given ideal conditions, it will grow to its genetically pre-determined size as long as sufficient water and nutrients are available and the temperature is appropriate or until the colony encounters competition from other fungi. If the proper nutrients are not available, or if the water supply disappears, then the germ tube and the spore die. Given proper conditions, fungi will generally grow vegetatively until some environmental variable becomes limiting. Water or nutrients may be depleted, or temperature or lighting conditions could change. When these changes occur, fungi stop vegetative growth and may begin to produce new spores.

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Severe Mold Growth

Severe Mold Growth

This photo shows a basement where a major water loss occurred when a pipe burst and no one was living in the home to notice until thousands of gallons of water went throughout the home. A contractor was hired to dry out the basement, but only was equipped with 3 fans, when the size of the basement called for 12, and a large dehumidifier. A few short days later, mold began to appear on the joists, and within two weeks, the entire basement was covered. This job should serve as a learning lesson, that you must always hire companies trained and certified in their respected fields, and you really do get what you pay for.

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