Our apartment sustained fire damage. Can/should our textiles be saved?
July 29, 2019 12:09 AM   Subscribe

Our next door neighbor's apartment went up in flames a week ago. It started from his ancient air conditioner, and our entire apartment is now covered in disgusting black soot. Every single item we own now has an acrid burnt-plastic smell.

A professional fire damage restoration company is going to go in and deal with the aftermath. Our main concern is about lingering toxins which aren't detectable by sight or smell, especially since we have a toddler. If our clothes come back smelling and looking fresh as a daisy, might they still be dangerous? Is there a definitive test that can check them for toxins? What would constitute an unsafe garment? If we decide not to keep them, would it be ethical to sell or donate them? What should the threshold be? Similarly, but on a larger scale, should even we go back to our apartment after cleanup is completed, or go looking for a new place?Thanks in advance.
posted by Silky Slim to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Lingering toxins = why a lot of insurance companies insist on replacing smoke damaged items that seem physically OK otherwise. Have you checked with your insurance company?
posted by McNulty at 1:11 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: McNulty: My insurance company's report is still pending, but I get the sense that they will offer to have our clothes cleaned, not replaced… and I'm wondering whether or not I should be OK with that.
posted by Silky Slim at 1:19 AM on July 29, 2019

Couches, mattresses, upholstered stuff - probably impossible to get the smell out.
Curtains, towels, sheets - have them laundered, maybe twice. I would be fine with laundered stuff that doesn't smell like fire, smoke, burnt plastic. If there's a place you can hang things in the sun, even better.
Clothing - Dry cleaning uses toxic chemicals, there is usually some residue, and I would not want a toddler in a home full dry cleaned stuff. Have as much laundered as possible.
Shoes, wood furniture, plastic stuff like appliances - hard to say.

Disaster cleaners vary, get references and find the best company. Fire remediation is not regular cleaning. They will have the right tools and products. Honestly, put some corn starch on the underside of a wood chair to check that they are cleaning all surfaces. Everything has to be pulled away from walls and cleaned. They will know who does environmental testing for air quality, or google.

If you can still smell fire/ burnt plastic, I'd think twice about returning. Insurance companies vary, a good one will try to take care of you adequately. You can negotiate; require the best cleaner. If you have a sketchy insurance company, every state has an insurance commission, they may be able to help you get a fair deal. Look in the attorney general's website. I'm glad you're safe, but what a pain.
posted by theora55 at 6:29 AM on July 29, 2019

If your home still smells like burning and acrid plastic, I would vehemently fight not to return. Contact the insurance company and let them know about the toxic fumes and ask them about medium-term housing (like an Extended Stay) and also contact your local Red Cross for help, that's what they're there for.

Frankly, and I say this as a person who haaaaaaaaates this answer: If you are going to lose your home and it is someone else's fault due to negligence (neighbor with ancient air conditioner who never serviced it, or landlord who provided said ancient air conditioner who never serviced it), and you are having a lot of out of pocket costs that your insurance isn't paying for - including the hassle of a move with a toddler - you need to consider a lawyer to make you whole again. Ask your insurance company if they plan on going after the neighbor's insurance to recoup costs and/or the landlord's insurance company. Provide contact information to your insurance company for both if applicable. You should not have to pay more than your deductible and your time to get your life back.

Your ethics question: I would probably be okay with keeping, selling, or donating totally washable cotton/linen/wool clothes/fabrics but nothing that had synthetic compounds like polyester or blends. For those, I'd trash them, possibly even cut them up so no one else would put them on their bodies. Your mattresses are toast; consider those a total loss. Make the fire remediation company haul that stuff away, don't do it yourself.

If you can start documenting all of your belongings now, you'll have an easier time making a claim when insurance comes ready to help you.

I lost most of my belongings in a flood, which is not the same as a fire but there was sewage involved and a lot of things could not be saved, so this is from my own experience.
posted by juniperesque at 7:07 AM on July 29, 2019 [6 favorites]

I hate to advocate sending anything to the landfill, but I wouldn't be fully comfortable keeping the clothes. This article talks about someone experimenting with having baby clothes treated after a fire and then sending the clothes to a lab for testing, and the clothing was contaminated.
posted by pinochiette at 8:43 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you haven't seen it, Red Cross has a booklet entitled after a fire with some very useful information in it. I'm unsure if it answers your specific questions but its a comprehensive start.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:44 AM on July 29, 2019

If you decide not to keep them, no, it is not ethical to donate them. They need to go to the dump.
posted by purple_bird at 10:00 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

They need to go to the dump
Yeah, just in case my comment wasn't clear, I also don't think you should donate the clothes.
posted by pinochiette at 10:33 AM on July 29, 2019

You might find this advice on Reddit from an insurance adjuster helpful:

It describes how not to get screwed when filing your claim.
posted by anadem at 11:37 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

I had everything in my apartment treated for smoke damage last year, but it was not sooty to the extent you are dealing with.

First: yes, couches and mattresses, cushions, etc. are a loss. If your insurer is at all reputable they will just tell you that right away.

The insurance company (Allstate) contracted a cleaning company that came out and took everything...and I mean everything.

The first round, they took all my fabrics; every scrap of linen, sheets, curtains, stuff in my closets, blankets, the works. I had grabbed a few things the night of the fire, and discovered that smoke smell of any kind will not wash out without special detergents; regular laundry soap doesn't touch it. So if you have some stuff you've gotten yourself, make sure they clean that too.

You can get reimbursed for the new mattresses, clothes, towels and sheets you will need to buy while they're cleaning your stuff.

The second round, the contractor took all my non-fabric stuff; books, posters, guitar, shoes, dishes, everything I hadn't already grabbed. Including files in my file cabinet. Everything.

This stuff will all be treated in an "ozone room" and even hand-cleaned. It's surprisingly effective; my books and pictures were smell free! But some things were not cleanable and they gave me the option of declaring them a loss or keeping them. Wooden furniture may or may not be salvagable. Metal stuff probably will be. Plastic stuff really retains smells so it might all be a loss there.

Ceramics, dishes, etc. can usually be cleaned unless they are damaged by direct heat/smoke too much.

You really won't know what your options are *until* they try to clean them, but like I said, you will be able to say "no" if they bring back somethign that still reeks/you think is dangerous. And then claim it.
posted by emjaybee at 3:51 PM on July 30, 2019

I experienced an apartment fire a couple decades ago, with everything covered in sooty water and smoke. My roommates and I weren't insured, so we really tried to salvage as much as we could. Upholstered items and mattresses (including a brand new weeks-old deluxe Serta mattress—sob) were right out, and although we tried to salvage some wood furniture, the smell never came out, even after refinishing and years of waiting for the odor to diminish. Anything that goes in the washing machine has a chance of being rescued. Natural fibres (wool and cotton) came through pretty well. Anything with synthetic blends seemed to hang onto the smell, even after all kinds of soaking and treatment. Books and CDs were all unsalvageable.

In short, the only things I was successful in salvaging was some wool sweaters, towels, jeans and cotton sweats. Stuff from the kitchen fared pretty well—china and cookware—though the appliances were shot. Now that's to say that they were usable and smell-free. I can't comment at all as to whether any of those things harboured lingering chemicals. If there is a child involved, it's perhaps not worth taking a chance on anything they would wear or use. In my case, it was emotionally important to hang onto a few items because the experience of total loss was hard to bear.

If your apartment is not going to be gutted, I would probably not opt to remain there. We recently lived two houses down from a townhouse with a fire, and every time it rained, the smell re-emerged. I don't think it was a health risk, but it's just really unpleasant to live with that.
posted by amusebuche at 2:34 PM on August 1, 2019

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