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.
After close to an hour of ventilating Apartment 2, talking on the phone with city health personnel, and considering options, an insight occurred. We saw the Cambodian man walk to the back of the building so we followed him to assure he would not re-enter the building. In the back, we found him talking to his wife who had been driven from the apartment due to the odor. At this point, through the use of gestures, we saw the Cambodian motion like he was eating. His hand to mouth motion suggested he was cooking their supper but at the same time he said "pepper". Aha! He had used pepper to prepare his meal so we asked him to show us the pepper that he had used. He led us into his kitchen and from underneath his kitchen table he retrieved a large bowl of dried, red Habanero peppers. Then he motioned that he chopped them up and put them into a frying pan on the stove. Aha! It was now apparent that he heated them up on the stove and that created an airborne hazard of hot pepper! What this innocent Cambodian chef did was create a pepper spray environment within his apartment which then subsequently spread through the entire apartment building.
All of the symptoms of the residents were consistent with pepper spray exposure and extensive ventilation was the only way to rid the building of the hazard. The red peppers that the Cambodian man used are plants within the capsicum family and the active ingredient that makes them hot tasting is capsaicin (methyl vanillyl nonenamide). Capsaicin is touted as the strongest chemical known and is the active ingredient of Pepper Spray (also known as OC spray from "Oleoresin Capsicum").
Pepper Spray is a lachrymatory agent (a chemical compound that can irritate the eyes) but it is also an inflammatory agent as opposed to an irritant like Mace. It causes immediate closing of the eyes, difficulty breathing, runny nose, and coughing. The duration of its effects depend on the strength of the spray but the average full effect lasts around 30 to 45 minutes, with diminished effects lasting for hours. It is used for riot and crowd control along with self-defense and it is a non-lethal agent that can, in some cases, cause death.
With all of the pieces gathered our investigation was complete and coupled with thorough ventilation we felt assured that the environment was safe. A quick walkthrough of the entire building, without airpacks, verified that the pepper spray environment had been removed and residents could re-enter their apartments. Everyone was apprised of our findings and actions and they were informed to call if they had additional concerns.
The Cambodian couple was also allowed to return to their apartment and unfortunately a cold supper. Hopefully, they can understand that they did not do anything wrong but their cuisine practices may affect others in ways that they are not used to. While a follow-up visit with an interpreter is planned in the near future to explain what was done and why to the Cambodian family, building residents may now have a better idea of where unexplained odors may be coming from. And, they should not be surprised if the source is from cooking!
David is a 26-year fire service veteran who serves as an officer on Ladder 6 in Madison, Wisconsin, and as the Operations and Training Director for the department's regional Level A hazmat team. David founded the Wisconsin Association of Hazardous Materials Responders, Inc. and served as the first president. Additionally, David teaches, presents, and authors articles for websites and trade magazines on a wide variety of hazmat topics. David is also a National Fire Academy instructor of chemistry and a Master Instructor for the International Association of Fire Fighters HazMat and Terrorism training programs.