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Case Studies - Fire Loss: Analyzing the Smoke Damage

January, 2002

An insurance company may try it's best at remediation of offices and residences of the odour of smoke after a fire loss. Many cleaning procedures might be used including the dry-cleaning of clothing. One of the problems is that in spite of the best efforts in cleaning the insured may claim that a smoke odour still exists, especially on clothing, even after cleaning. A reassessment by the insurance company using the "sniff test" may not detect any odour(s). The question then arises whether this is a legitimate claim by the insured that may want the items replaced. Typically these items may be passed around to various individuals in a panel that would sniff the contents of a bag that may contain an article that was claimed to have a smoke odour. However, the results are not reliable as everyone seems to have a different ability to smell odours and some have a better ability with some odours than others. With the advent of new technology Activation Laboratories Ltd. have developed a method to detect minute quantities of the organic compounds that are responsible for the odour of smoke. Through our research of scientific publications and our own in house research our method can be said to be very specific for the odour of smoke. As each fire has a different makeup or signature with respect to the amount of wood, rubber, plastic, cloth, vinyl, etc., we test for a wide variety of compounds. Some compounds produced by the burning of these materials do not smell like smoke. These compounds are said to not have the organoleptic property of smoke. These compounds are still useful to analyze for as they aid in other situations such as tracing the extent of the effect of a fire, such as comparing different rooms with different floors of an apartment building. Within the same test is the analysis of compounds that are responsible for the smoke odour, or those compounds said to have the organoleptic property of smoke. These compounds are specific sulfides, pyrroles, mercaptans and guaiacols to name a few. As a real world example; an elderly couple had a fire occur in a main floor room. The insurance company remediated the furniture, walls, etc. on the main floor. Some smoke was known to migrate up a stairway into an open room, thus the clothing and materials were dry-cleaned. A couple of weeks later this couple complained that they're clothing were irritating due to the odour of smoke. The insurance firm contacted Activation Laboratories Ltd. and obtained sampling and packaging information. Several articles of clothing and pillowcases were packaged into special nylon evidence bags. This type of packaging is critical as it insures against any loss of odour from the materials, if present, and prevents any cross contamination of odours from other samples or during shipping. In this case the analysis of these samples revealed two compounds that were directly related to smoke residues and one most certainly had the organoleptic property of smoke. These compounds were there in minute amounts and were of much less concentration than the dry-cleaning solvent that was still readily detectable. Upon reporting the findings as positive for the presence of smoke residues in minute quantities, the insurance company replied that this result made sense. Early that day the insurance company had discovered that this elderly couple both suffered from many allergies and could be classed as hypersensitive. The insurance company was pleased that they could confirm this claim. From the analysis it appeared that the dry-cleaning process was very effective and other similar cases confirmed this, but in this case, minute amounts of smoke residue was still irritating. This case was also useful as it documented the capability of the Gas Chromatography /Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS) method developed to detect an amount of these smoke residues that were also detectable by people with the most sensitive sense of smell. Yet this method is not so sensitive that any material analyzed would be reported as positive for the presence of smoke residues. This test can also review the relative amount of smoke residues present, the reliability that specific compounds are due to smoke residues and determine whether in fact the article has been dry cleaned and the effectiveness of the dry cleaning process. For more information please contact Mr. Dale Sutherland toll free throughout North America at 1.888.ACTLABS (228.5227) ext. 114.

Activation Laboratories Ltd. | 41 Bittern Street, Ancaster, Ontario, L9G 4V5, Canada | TF: +1.888.228.5227
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