I-Team 8

EPA report finds numerous chemicals in smoke from Walmart warehouse fire

PLAINFIELD, Ind. (WISH) — It has been three months since a fire destroyed a Walmart distribution warehouse in Plainfield.

The smoke on March 16 could be seen for miles. Some of that smoke made it into the homes that are right around the corner from the warehouse. A family of seven says it’s still dealing with the effects of the fire. 

“There is something in our home that is making us sick,” said Elizabeth Harvey.

She had a front-row seat to the Walmart warehouse fire. She, her five children and her husband live in a subdivision that is less than a mile north of the Walmart property. The smoke from the fire was over her house. She says the smoke lingered in the neighborhood for days.  

“I explained it to my friends when you go camping and you put your campfire out and your campsite kind of fills with smoke, that was what our neighborhood was like. Just going outside, there was smoke all around our homes. It was scratchy throat, itchy eyes, and irritating to be outside for short periods of time,” Harvey said. 

The smoke from the fire is also a concern for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA had a team on the ground taking air and soil samples 12 hours after the fire started. The EPA team monitored and sampled the air around the clock for nearly a week. The results of the team’s were made public this week in an 800-page report.

I-Team 8 sent a copy of the report to Gabriel Filippelli, an environmental chemist and researcher at Indiana University, for an explanation.   

“I think the biggest thing that stood out is that, even at 12 hours later when they started measuring, they were noticing significantly high amounts of a couple of contaminates that are a little bit concerning.  Benzene showed up in some of the reports; those are both relatively toxic contaminates,” Filippelli said.

Coming inside the house provided some relief. The Plainfield town government and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management advised people in the area to stay inside, which many did.

But the longer they stayed inside, the entire Harvey family started developing flu-like symptoms, having headaches, nausea, vomiting, and experiencing tightness in their chest. The ailments seemed to go on for days.

The Harvey family’s youngest, 2-year-old Henry, became lethargic and had trouble breathing. Henry landed in the emergency room and a doctor’s office a couple times. Elizabeth Harvey knew something was wrong when her 9-year-old son, Lucas, went to his grandmother’s house for a weekend and his symptoms went away,  

“He was gone for the weekend and he came home and said — he had been home probably four or five hours — and said, ‘I just hate living here,’ and I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ and he was not with my family in our home. He said, ‘I went away for the weekend to Nannie’s house and I didn’t have a headache, I didn’t have a sore throat, and I didn’t feel nauseous or like I was going to throw up,’ and he said, ‘My belly didn’t hurt,’ and he said, ‘I have only been home a short time, and now I feel all those things and I just feel crummy.’”

That is when mom suspected something from the fire had gotten into their home.

Harvey called a restoration company who had cleaned a few homes in the area. They recommended a full remediation of the house, and a good thorough cleaning of the attic, walls and the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system. But, her homeowner’s insurance denied the claim on the basis that the house had no visible smoke damage.

“With some pushback from me, we did have an environmental hygienist come out last week and they took samples. We were supposed to have the results yesterday,” Harvey said. 

According to the EPA report, dozens of compounds were released into the air by the fire. The health effects of some are well-known. Filippelli says the immediate health concerns is the acute exposure to the smoke and dust from the fire.

The Harvey family spends as much time outside as possible. For the time being, it is the safest place.

The family has every intention to sell the house. Now, they are waiting for the remediation company to give the all-clear.

Walmart issued a statement to I – team 8 Thursday afternoon

“We’ve responded to claims from those impacted by March’s Plainfield fire. Regarding the recently released report, I’ll refer you to the EPA for a response.”