Car was parked close to one that burned to the ground

Hey, guys, I need help and I need it fast! Last Saturday, I returned to the airport garage where my car was parked to find that a vehicle three spaces away had burned to the ground. The firefighters were still on scene and the airport security staff was hosing down all cars in the area “as a precaution”. As it turns out our Mazda CX-9’s clearcoat, headlight lenses, and chrome trim were severely etched, either by fallout directly from the burning vehicle or by back splash from the fire hoses that mixed with the acids, toxins and carcinogens that burning cars throw off.

Within 10 minutes of driving away from the airport, I began to experience a burning sensation in my eyes, throat and lungs, the effects of which I was still feeling 12 hours later. Upon inspection of the engine compartment, I found a lot of gray/black ash and grainier particulates that had to have come from the fire. It’s pretty obvious to me that this is likely to be the cause of what is making me ill. (I’ve since driven the car twice, both for 10 minutes or less, with the same results.)

Now here comes my dilemma. The insurance company adjuster wrote up the claim to fix the paint & trim. He also thought the engine compartment should be steam cleaned, the cabin filter replaced and the vents “blown out”. When I asked if the body shop could effectively handle the latter part of the job, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “If they can’t, they will probably sub it out to the dealership.” When I called the body shop and explained the issue, they were very candid and said that ridding the vents of whatever is making me sick was beyond their skill set. They suggested I try the dealership. When I called the dealer, they IMMEDIATELY suggested a high-end detailing in shop that has a very good reputation. The owner of that business also said he couldn’t guarantee that he could rid the car of toxic chemicals–he usually deals with odors or plain garden variety smoke. Sounds to me like everyone is thinking they don’t want to take on the liability for this.

I then turned back to the insurance company and explained I was having difficulty finding anyone who can do the job correctly. They told me they would find a resource and get back to me. Well, that was over 24 hours ago and still no word.

Here are the questions I need help with:

  1. Has anyone experienced a similar situation?
  2. If so, how was the situation resolved?
  3. Does anyone know of any way of testing for toxins and carcinogens so that we can be completely assured that we aren’t doing long term damage to our health?

Right now I would start with my insurance company. Ask them nicely what you should do now. (local laws may vary) See what they say. See what they are willing to put on paper. As soon as you see any attempt on anyone’s part, check your local lawyer.

I suspect you will be OK and someone in the chain will figure it will be cheaper for them to give you a fair settlement now rather than fight it.

Once you have some additional information let us know what it is and let’s go from there.

In my personal experience, if you are fair and if you choose a good insurance company, the insurance company will do the foot work and you will end up with a fair deal.  Remember, they likely don't cover everything to like new.  

I would not worry too much about that 24 hours.  It can take them a little while to get their act together.  

Good Luck

You’re NOT going to get someone to take on the liability for this. Any good detailing shop should be able to clean it pretty good…but not one of them is going to GUARANTEE they can get all the chemicals out…How often do you see this happening???

Testing…I’ve NEVER heard of any company anywhere that can do that…Or will do that…Good luck finding one.

Personally…I’d just take it to a good detail shop…and let them do what they can…And I’d replace the cabin filter once every couple of weeks for a while.

The Mazda CX-9 apparently has a cabin air filter, according to Google. So I think you will be fine if you have the engine compartment cleaned, blow out the ducts, and replace the filter. Your feeling of being ill is likely coming from volatile compounds trapped in the filter, so that you smell the fire every time you get in the car.

A more detailed answer is this: I would want to know what, if anything, actually got inside the ductwork for the cabin air system. If, somehow, a large amount of water got in the system, and got past the cabin air filter, then it probably carried some bad stuff with it, and “blowing it out” with compressed air would not be good enough. In that case I would want the ducts actually cleaned, which might involve running soap and water through it with a scrub brush (like a chimney sweep), followed by compressed air to dry it out. It would be of critical importance to get the ducts dry after washing them. I don’t even know if washing the inside of the ducts is possible or practical. They might have to be taken apart, which would mean taking out the dash and front console, at a very high cost. But I also can not think of a way for large amounts of water to get inside the ducts unless the FD directly sprayed under the hood of your car with their hoses.

If you did not get water in the ductwork, then the contamination is probably contained to the cabin air intake, the filter, and the filter housing. This will be relatively easy to clean, and, along with cleaning the engine compartment itself, should take care of the problem.

I don’t blame the shop for not wanting to give a guarantee about “chemicals”. They have no way to test for harmful chemicals, and with some people claiming various chemical sensitivities or allergies, don’t want to subject themselves to real or imagined liability.

Also remember that you voluntarily expose yourself to a cornucopia of combustion by-products every time you drive (exhaust from other vehicles), so the real goal here is to get the fire contaminants cleaned out, not to give you a “chemical free” car, which is an impossibility.

Most good clean up shops have dealt with vehicles in car fires before. Yours wan’t even directly on fire I’m sure they could do a good job of ridding the smell and contaminants that made your eyes burn, etc. Will they guarantee there are no toxic chemicals left? Probably not; too much liability there. Perhaps your ins. co. could do something like that for you however.

I don’t see were a good detailed cleaning wont be enough to rid you of this problem. I have cleaned mold out of duct work of a car ( kids put food in the vents ). I used a cleaner for this. It involved A hose and shop wet vac. But in your case change the cabin filter and have them clean the duct work. Clean the carpets and seats. You will then good to go.

So the dealer can’t just order new ducts and replace them? That would pretty much guarantee the ducts would be clean. The heater core and evaporator cores will need to get a good hosing too, and in the case of the evaporator, that may mean removal, which is a lot of work as well.

Even after all this, you could still get sick from any residual chamicals in the seats, carpet, dash etc.

That would be silly - akin to ordering a new toilet because someone missed the bowl. Clean it and you’ll be fine.

BTW, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of comprehension that the burning sensation you got came from the fire department. They often use a special fire suppressant foam mixed with the water. There are two formulas of that foam - one is fine, and the other burns like hell if it gets on you. If that’s the case here, the foam has already broken down and won’t give you any more problems. Blowing out the vents along with cleaning the engine compartment and changing the cabin filter will be fine.

Cleaning the system might not be as easy as some think. Smoke particles are very small - less than 0.1mm, and many less than 0.01mm. These particles are difficult to get out of the creases and even surface roughness. All parts would have to be removed and flushed clean with a liquid. If someone has to go to that effort, it is probably less expensive to replace the parts. If your insurer won’t do it at first, you will have to be patient. Try it their way, and if it works - great. If not, you will have to return the car for more work.

I think that the suggestions here are good. However, if you can’t get yourself to believe that they will work, then why don’t you search for a company that does environmental air testing and get them to test the air in the car once the work has been done?

One important point here that some are forgetting is that Tom’s car was not running during the fire at the nearby car. So no smoke or chemicals were drawn into the ventilation system during the incident. Once the fire was out and his car was hosed off, he turned on the engine and drove away. So the stuff that was drawn in to the cabin ventilation system was not fire smoke but rather the particles that were large enough and solid enough to stick to the car and not get washed off. I suspect that nearly everything of significance was trapped by the cabin air filter and the only stuff coming into the cabin were small amounts of odors and volatile gases coming off those trapped particles.

So my prediction is that changing the filter and cleaning the filter housing, plus cleaning under the hood, will take care of the problem.

By the way, Tom_J, this gets me thinking that you should make sure to change the engine air filter, if it was not already on the list of things to do.

I’m dubious about doing air quality tests on the interior. Any car is constantly being driven through low levels of pollutants from normal exhaust, and will pick up some traces. Without a “before” measurement, I would not know how to evaluate the “after” measurement.