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PVC AND THE DÜSSELDORF AIRPORT FIRE

Greenpeace press release April 18, 1996.

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An answer of the Chlorophiles

The original text can be found on the dioxin-l pages In the Archive of postings to DIOXIN-L by thread or directly under Chlorine Accidents. A response to that list was sent and distributed.
A response on the first part of the Greenpeace story, which was on the danger of chlorine transport and use, due to a train accident with a leaking chlorine tank involved in Montana, USA, can be found on the Chlorophiles pages: Chlorine and risk.


The story of Greenpeace:

A fire at the Düsseldorf, Germany airport on April 12, killed 16 people and injured over 100. PVC had a dramatic effect on the fire, which was caused by hot glowing particles from a welding operation, which dropped into a part of the building were PVC cables and insulation material immediately caught fire. Toxic fumes set free by this material caused most of the victims one floor above the burning floor. A lack of safety equipment in the airport also contributed to this awful catastrophe.

The role of PVC in this, the worst fire in the history of German airports is not doubted by either officials or the media:
-PVC caused dense black fumes.
-PVC caused high HCl-emissions.
-PVC contributed to the expansion of the fire.
-PVC caused dioxin contamination of about 120 ug/kg residues, exceeding the German limits by factor 10 and more.


Response of the Chlorophiles:


The Düsseldorf accident was caused by welding under a road deck. Possibly melted and burning asphalt had dripped into the suspended ceiling, where PVC insulated cables lied. Also some rests of flammable insulation material were found at that place. After a time of smoldering, the insulation material caught fire and that was going on until it reached the ceiling of the arrival area. Then the whole arrival area caught fire, including all flammable materials like insulation material, wood desks, a complete wooden cantina, PVC cables, rubber conveyor belts, etc., etc.
Most of the victims were not in that area, but one floor higher where the very dense smoke completely filled the area.

Besides the original cause, the progress of the fire and the amount of victims were caused by an enormous amount of structural and human errors:
There was no fire watch during welding (normally obliged).
There where no fire walls or traps in the suspending ceiling, the fire has gone from the starting point to the arrival hall unhindered for more than a hundred meters.
There were no smoke detectors nor a sprinkler installation in the ceiling.
After alarm, somebody started the wrong warning message, which called people to go right into the burning area.
Lifts were not stopped (nor going to a safe area), seven victims did go by lift from the parking lot on the roof top directly into the deadly smoke. When the door opened, the dense smoke hindered the light beam so that the lift doors could not be closed again.
Escape ways were not readily available at the right places. Eight victims were trapped at the Air France desk, by not having a nearby way out.
Ventilation was not (automatically) stopped.
The municipal fire brigade was called 27 minutes after fire alarm.

Whatever the cause of dead was, whatever the rapid spread of fire gave, it is quite clear that some officials now use ONE of the materials involved to shift off their responsibilities, hereby helped by Greenpeace and some media.

It is near impossible that the PVC sheeted cable is the cause of the fast spreading of the fire, it is one of the least flammable plastics. Tests at the technical school of Hüls AG, have proven that the PVC cable, after being ignited by the welding, is self-extinguishing when the source of ignition is stopped. See also our photobook on the manifestation of the PVC-industry and workers in Düsseldorf against the lies told about PVC on September 19, 1996 (80 k).

One of the last things working in the inferno was the PVC-cable feeded speaker system. The PVC-feeded lightning was even still working AFTER the disaster! This clearly indicates that PVC-cable is not "burning as fuses", like Greenpeace says...

The 'fingerprint', that is the composition of the dioxins found, points NOT to PVC, neither to PCB's. If PVC is burned, that composition is quite typical, as is the case for e.g. incinerator emissions, burning PCB's or other chlorinated or non-chlorinated materials. Even large fires where only PE (polyethene) and PP (polypropene) were burned, do give dioxins in the soot. The chlorine source which made the fingerprint in the Düsseldorf case is not yet known.

More important for possible long term health problems is the amount of PAH's in soot. In the Düsseldorf case, the amount of PAH's was 5 g/kg, of which 264 mg/kg of BaP (benzo-a-pyrene, the most potent carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic PAH). This must be compared to the 42.6 MICROgram I-TEQ dioxins/kg found in the same soot. Even if we assume a 20 times higher carcinogenity and other health effects of I-TEQ dioxins to BaP, the health effect of only BaP is 300 times worse than of the dioxins found! If we take into account the other toxic PAH's, the effect is appr. 600 times higher...

So it is assumed now that a mixture of smaller amounts of PVC and PCB's have burned, together with larger amounts of non-chlorinated materials.

We have no further words for people who abuse victims to score in the chlorine discussion.


According to the official prosecutor (April 10, 1997):

The press spokesman of the Düsseldorf Public Prosecutor, Mr. Ruland, has elaborately taken position about the cause of death of 17 people at the airport.

Thereafter it is regarded as certain that the cause lies in human failure, right from the start of the damage creating construction works, through the massive disregard of fire-safety rules during the building of the terminal in 1970.

Cause of the death of the 17 people in the airport building was the application of aluminum-coated polystyrene panels that were used as heat insulation to the ceiling of the building, despite the fire-safety rules that already existed at the time. The burning of these materials caused massive emission of deadly carbon monoxide and other breath-poisons.
At the end of the press conference, the spokesman did say literally:

"PVC did not play the slightest role in the death of the people"


According to the official Report-Summary (April 17, 1997) which can be found in a press-release on the NRW governmental web site under "Bericht" (in German and in English).

- under "2. Judgement about the Fire on April 11, 1996" :

"With the accident, 16 persons have deceased immediately by the fire itself.
The 17th victim died on the 2st of May 1996 through the consequences of smoke poisoning. The cause of the deadly smoke poisoning of all the victims was the carbon monoxide(CO) produced by the fire."

- under the heading "Determinative for damage to persons and gear" :

7 subjects, NO PVC is mentioned, as opposed to polystyrene

- under heading "Fire burden and damaging substances" :

"The materials that take part in a fire are determinative for the release of energy, fire products (damaging substances) and for the generation of smoke. Figure 6 enumerates the burnt materials by their mass (in total abt. 24000 kg). The polystyrene counted, with 11400 kg for half of the combustibles, whereas PVC with 5900 kg participated for abt. 24%. When one does not consider the mass of the combustibles, but their fire burden (releasable amount of energy), then the part of polystyrene counts with 122MWh (Megawatt hours) for 61% as opposed to PVC with 29.5MWh (15%)."
[Note of the Chlorophiles: replacing PVC-sheated cables by other materials would nearly double the heat release!]
.....
"The established burden of harmful substances is, taken into account the participating combustibles- in particular PVC- not to assign as extremely high, by considering the limit values and in comparison with other big fire accidents."
"Afterwards, it cannot be established, in a reliable way, that the cables that were present in the fire area would have given a similar spreading of the fire without the fire burden support of the hard polystyrene foam or if a locally started fire could have been halted by itself on the basis of the fire characteristics of PVC. But it is certain that, with the burning of the PS-hard foam also the usual "halogen free" cables, with improved fire behaviour, would have been entirely burnt up. With a fire intensity like for the fire of the air terminal on the 11th of April 1996, the use of fire-inhibitors would not have meant an essential improvement of the fire behaviour."

- under the heading "Smoke production" :

" A particular problem with the fire of the 11th of April 1996 was set by the, already at abt. 16:00 hours, rapid and intensive emergence of smoke in large areas of the building. In particular the polystyrene that took part in the fire produced a thick smoke, but also the PVC cables have performed a contribution to the smoke in the airport building. The smoke has encircled the 16 victims, with a better sight and lower quantities of toxic substances they might still have gotten away."

- under the heading " 3. Recommendations of the Commission" :

The Commission enumerates 120 recommendations. PVC is mentioned once; under the heading 3.3 "Constructional fire-safety on the Duesseldorf Airport-section", "Fire behaviour and smoke emission of construction materials", this sentence is:

"- for the time being, no general recommendation for or against the use of PVC cables (there is a need for research here)"


Compare the result of the official investigation with the original comment of Greenpeace on the Düsseldorf disaster and our reply at that time. Who was right?

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Normally PVC is a material which has the highest ignition temperature of all electrical insulating materials we know (except expensive silicone rubber or fluoropolymers). If a lot of materials in the neighborhood are on fire, it will catch fire too. Then it will release hydrochloric acid and carbon monoxide, depending on the circumstances. Hydrochloric acid is as toxic as carbon monoxide (released from any carbon containing material), with a few differences: It has a very sharp odor, which gives a warning effect, while carbon monoxide is odorless. And it rapidly dissolves in water, which can be an advantage, if sprinklers are used, but a disadvantage if electronic equipment is involved. The corrosive damage to steel constructions is in any case negligible, compared with fire and water damage.

Investigations on fire smoke victims revealed that 90-95% died from carbon monoxide poisoning, 5-10% from cyanide, released by nitrogen compounds like wool, silk, nylon and polyurethane foams. I don't know of any case of victims from hydrochloric acid, released by burning PVC.
Carbon monoxide causes at least 300 victims a year in Belgium alone (10 million inhabitants).
Old PVC formulations and a lot of other materials can give very dense smoke, depending of the circumstances. Modern formulations will give much less smoke.
New PVC formulations were tested in the severest fire classes (IEC 332 Pt3, CSA FT-4) and passes where even silane crosslinked fire retarded polyolefine insulated cable failed.

In any accidental fire, you will find very small amounts of dioxins, be it PVC (4 microgram per burned ton, a seaship releases 6 microgram per ton fuel used), polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) or wood. In NO case that gives rise to health risks for the people involved, be it the wounded, the neighbors or the firemen. Blood tests of the German fire brigades, the most involved persons, and persons living near a huge (PVC) fire at Lengerich, Germany, did not give higher dioxin levels than of the average German population.
The dioxin limits mentioned by Greenpeace are for goods, which may be regularly SOLD on the German market, not for fire soot or rests, which can be disposed off or burned in well equipped incinerators.

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All this evidence can be found (or will be found when ready) on the Chlorophiles pages and in the scientific reports, where the Chlorophiles pages are based on.

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You are at level one of the Chlorophiles answer pages.

Created: April 19, 1996.
Last update: May 3, 1998.

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