HazMat 101: Lessons in Cooking

When the door opened the odor that emanated from within the apartment became absolutely unbearable and the funny thing was that this man was seemingly not affected by the odor!

Want to clear out an apartment complex with a choking odor? That is exactly what a man of Cambodian decent did recently when he prepared a Sunday meal for himself and his wife. It was all unintentional and really just an everyday ritual of meal preparation, but on this day a little extra spice and heat from his stovetop burner produced an atmosphere that was unbearable to the general population.

Our engine company was called to a four-unit apartment complex where residents complained of an odor at about suppertime on a hot and humid evening. Upon arrival we found approximately 10 people standing near the curb but none of them appeared incapacitated. Interviews with them revealed an odor in the building's hallway that caused choking, eye watering, and sore throats. Some people stated that the odor had just happened in the last 10 to 15 minutes and that no one saw anything that looked out of the ordinary before the odor appeared. A quick trip inside the hallway verified the odor's affects as it caused immediate choking in the upper respiratory system. At that point more questions of the people at the curb were needed.

Additional information included no one had spilled anything or sprayed anything and their cooking did not seem to be the culprit. However, one person then stated that a man in Apartment 2 was Cambodian and that he was not present outside at the curb. Aha! Perhaps this man would know more about what was going on if we could make contact with him. By now, police were on-location so we went back inside the building and knocked on Apartment 2's door.

When the door opened the odor that emanated from within the apartment became absolutely unbearable and the funny thing was that this man was seemingly not affected by the odor! We knew we had to exit immediately because of our incessant choking and as we motioned for the Cambodian man to come with us we also discovered that we had a language barrier. He readily complied and when we got him outside we learned that no information would be exchanged due to our communication short comings.

The exact source of the odor remained a mystery at this point and the police were asked if an interpreter could be found. The answer was that we would have to wait until the third shift, another five hours, before we could get someone who could understand Cambodian.

In the meantime, we requested a ladder company to respond to the address for ventilation and then we donned our airpacks and entered the building to look around for a source of this odor with the first stop being the Cambodian's apartment. Inside, we found several pots and pans with food products such as soup, vegetables, and a pan of pork ribs with a barbeque sauce in the oven. Nothing appeared burned or remotely the source of the odor. We also checked the sink, behind the fridge, in the cupboards, and even the microwave oven to no avail. We continued to check the apartment both assuring that everyone had evacuated and for sources of an odor. Finding none on both counts, we checked the rest of the building and again came up empty handed.

Once the ladder company employed the positive pressure ventilation we systematically ventilated each apartment and continually ventilated Apartment 2 for over one hour. During this time we contacted the city health department for their counsel and also in case the displaced residents would need temporary shelter. Having not pinpointed the source of the odor the concerns were that the odor could be toxic and have acute health effects if people were allowed back into the building. Since no one outside had any lasting effects from their brief exposure that was a good sign. But, it was a possibility that a chemical had been used and it presented a toxic atmosphere. While the source appeared to be from cooking, and Cambodian cuisine is known for spicy and hot tasting food, other possibilities still had to be considered. Calling in the hazmat response team, with their environmental sampling capability, was also an option.

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