The Iowa Department of Natural Resources says soot and microscopic “aerosols” were released during the fire at the Behr salvage yard last week on Mason City’s west side.
Jeff Vansteenberg in the DNR’s Mason City field office says they have air-quality monitors at two cement plants on the city’s north side. VanSteenberg says the day of the fire, winds were from the southwest and they could tell from the monitor data then that there were elevated levels of particulates in the air. “You would have expected that,” he says. “All you needed to do was look out the window and take a look at that black smoke to know that.”
Vansteenberg says even though they didn’t measure many of the toxic substances downwind on the day of the fire because they didn’t have the right kind of equipment to do that, he’s glad they issued a warning for people to stay out of the smoke. “We don’t have the capability to monitor everything so we wanted to make sure that people understood that that was a serious incident,” he says. “We don’t want to see big car fires like that. We don’t want to see just small burn piles that have plastic and rubber and things like that. That’s why there’s an open-burning law in the state of Iowa.”
Vansteenberg says it’s clear the air quality downwind from the fire was bad at the time it occurred, though he doesn’t think anyone affected by the smoke suffered longterm effects. “If you were in that smoke, you obviously would have have some short-term health issues. You know, you get those small particles in there, there could be coughing, phlegm production, that kind of thing,” he says. “As far as long term, we don’t suspect it to be any different from other smoke that you’d be exposed to.” Tending a fire in a backyard burn pit, for example, would expose you to the same pollutants that were produced in the car fire according to Vansteenberg.
He says air quality should be back to normal by now and VanSteenberg points out that there are always pollutants going into the air from cars, trucks, tractors. “We don’t have zero emissions from our industries,” he says. “Though they all have permits and they control that.” Last week’s fire at the Behr Salvage yard involved between six- and eight- thousand crushed cars. Investigators have said they suspect arson is involved in the case.