EPA finds asbestos, compound used in chemical weapons in Richmond fire air samples

April 17, 2023

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air monitoring near the site of a major fire in Richmond has found multiple toxic substances, including asbestos and hydrogen cyanide, a compound used as a chemical weapon during World War I.

The EPA has conducted 24-hour air monitoring and sampling at the site and in neighborhoods surrounding the 175,000-square feet “My Way Trading Warehouse” since the recycled plastics in the building went up in flames April 11.

The agency said it found debris containing asbestos in neighborhoods surrounding the warehouse. The EPA said air monitors detected the presence of hydrogen cyanide, benzene, chlorine, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds within the half-mile evacuation zone.

The agency sent the collected samples to a laboratory to learn more about the extent of the contamination.

The Wayne County Emergency Management Agency has since lifted the evacuation order for residents living within the evacuation zone, but the chemicals detected by the EPA could potentially cause a series of health problems for residents.

EPA officials are warning residents not to remove any fire debris on their own. Instead, they can call the Richmond Community Helpline at (765) 973-9300 to report the suspected debris and register their information with the EPA to receive help from the EPA’s asbestos removal professionals.


Asbestos fibers can get trapped in the lungs, causing scarring and inflammation that leads to breathing problems. Long-term exposure to asbestos can cause cancers of the lung, larynx and ovaries. Asbestos exposure also causes mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the thin membranes lining the chest and abdomen.

Hydrogen cyanide is a chemical compound used to make plastics, synthetic fibers, dyes and pesticides. It is also used for fumigation, electroplating and mining. The chemical interferes with the body’s use of oxygen, potentially causing harm to the brain, heart, blood vessels and lungs.

High concentrations of the compound were used as a chemical weapon by the French during World War I and later by Nazi Germany in its extermination camps under the name Zyklon B.

Benzene is used to make styrene and phenol, raw materials for plastic production. Breathing in high levels of benzene can cause a rapid or irregular heartbeat, headaches, tremors, and even death. Long-term exposure, which means exposure for a year or more, can affect bone marrow, blood cells and the immune system.

Chlorine is used to make polyvinyl chloride, the third-most widely used plastic. The chemical can affect breathing for short- and long-term periods.

Volatile organic compounds can damage the liver, kidney and central nervous system and can cause some forms of cancer.


It is unclear how much of the toxic chemicals may have entered peoples’ home. The Wayne County Health Department created a checklist for residents to properly air out and clean personal property affected by the fire.

  • Open windows and doors for a few hours to ventilate your home. Make sure your air conditioning or heating units are off to prevent smoky air from recirculating.

  • Use a hose to wash ash, soot and dust off household items. You can use a mild cleanser with a damp cloth to remove any visible residue that remains.

  • Use baking soda and activated charcoal to absorb odors. Leave either around the house in bowls to help absorb any smells. Leave doors open to help catch all the smells.

  • Throw away any food that shows signs of damage or spoiling.

  • Wear gloves and wipe down any items that have ash or dust. Be sure to clean frequently touched items like light switches, remotes, food prep areas and children’s toys. Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly before removing the gloves.

  • Clean hard surfaces, including the inside of cabinets, drawers and closets, pots, pans and flatware with soap and water.

  • Clean soot off walls, floors and furniture with soap and water. Wash ceilings last.

  • Wash all your clothes that may be affected by smoke. Adding 1 to 2 cups of vinegar can help remove odors and residue. Some items of clothing may require multiple washings.

For more information on helping clean up your home affected by the fire in Richmond, contact the Wayne County Health Department at (765) 973-9245.

EPA finds asbestos, compound used in chemical weapons in Richmond fire air samples