Sunday, November 21, 2021

"Toxic Fires from Burning Plastics" Remain a National Health Threat - 45+ Years After Landmark NYC Fire

Written by: Dr. Robert L. Bard | Edited by: L. Gettz, Ed.D & Graciella Davi (NYCRA NEWS Editorial Staff)

Play 1975 NY Tel Fire/Dan Noonan Tribute video

November 9, 2021- The NY Fire Bell Club held its second annual meeting at the NYC Fire Museum on Spring Street- an historical landmark for "the city's bravest". In the name of public cancer awareness and a valuable history lesson in NYC fires, FDNY Honorary Battalion Chief Sergio Nieto, president of the FBC presented nationally recognized guest speaker- FDNY's own Ret. FF Dan Noonan, responder/survivor and crusader for the 1975 NY Tel Exchange Fire.

Mr. Noonan's powerful presentation captivated the large audience of active and retired firefighters and their families.  He delivered a powerful and real-time tour of his experiences while covering the most vital topics from that event-- including 1975 news coverage, interviews from lawmakers and FD leaderships, medical evaluations of the toxic contaminations and the after-effects of the event on the city both then and now.  Mr. Noonan also delivered compelling spotlights on some of the 699 firefighters who responded to the rescue event and their many health effects from the deadly smoke.

Since 1975, Dan Noonan has tirelessly promoted and echoed "the many lessons learned" from the department's most challenging disasters. He and many voices from the fire service considered  the NY Tel Exchange Fire "our First 9/11" - clearly voicing an overwhelmingly different type of disaster as far as its after-effects and the many layers of damage both to the city and to the responders, communication workers and the residents in the immediate area.

Dan Noonan's 11/9 presentation earmarked his continuing outcry for recognition of all 699 responders as well as the historical landmark of how killer smoke from burning plastics - re. the ONE BILLION feet of smoldering PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) copper wire insulation) was then and remains today as a health threat to our responders.  His seminar on the fire led to an Environmental Biology course in DIOXIN poisoning emitted by burning PVC.

During the seminar, Mr. Noonan played a CBS news clip by Arnold Diaz interviewing city officials about the AT&T Fire, then redirecting the focus on the NYC Subway System that also showed billions of miles of PVC piping and cable insulation and the high level of citywide carcinogenic risk involved should track fires happen.  Additional news clips included an interview with Dr. Deborah Wallace, nationally acclaimed Environmental Biologist and the author of the highly recognized 1990 textbook "IN THE MOUTH OF THE DRAGON- TOXIC FIRES IN THE AGE OF PLASTICS". Dr. Wallace’s book details the dangers of plastic-fueled toxic fires. Dr. Wallace notes: “No one thought to test early synthetic polymers for their combustion toxicity. These products were virtually untested when they were put on the market. Instead, the public became the test animals.”   She further states "we live in an age of plastics- exquisite wood-like furniture [plastic], designer textured wallcoverings [plastic], thick plush carpets, [plastic], fade-proof draperies [plastic]... and the list goes on.  The fact is, when living and working in any modern environment, we are surrounded by plastics. What most of us don't know is just how dangerous these plastics can be when heated, smoldering and burning.  

Mr. Noonan directed his audience to an entire chapter in Dr. Wallace’s book, referencing the 1975 NY Tel Fire; "PVC in the stage of decomposition and combustion can deliver an acute dose of toxicants which results in permanent serious injury and even delayed fatalities. Although the concentrated cloud of acid poses the most immediate life and health threat, other chemicals especially chlorinated hydrocarbons, can cause or contribute to serious chronic health is hoped that the consequences of this fire will lead to changes in the construction and layout of other buildings of this type. But even with improvements in construction and layout, the danger will not be completely eliminated. Synthetics are too pervasive in our world; we can never be too comfortable or confident about our safety. The Dragon lurks in the most unexpected places." [1]



Walt Whitman in 'Song of Myself ' Praised Firefighters:
“Lads ahold of fire-engines and hook-and-ladder ropes no less to me than the gods of the antique wars”.

By. Deborah Wallace, Ph.D.

But firefighters are mortals with lungs, hearts, brains, skin, and other organs vulnerable to physico-chemical insult. With the wide use of synthetic materials such as PVC, polyurethane, ABS, and nylon, fires and high-heat situations generate smoke and fumes containing both extremely irritating, tissue-destroying caustics and carcinogenic, mutagenic, neurotoxic, and hormonally-mimetic organic chemicals, such as dioxins and dibenzofurans. The scientific community has known most of the facts since the 1970’s. In 1969, New York City’s Fire Commissioner Lowry issued an alert about PVC fumes and smoke and urged use of airpacks.  

Firefighters belong among the Environmental Justice communities. From Louisiana’s cancer-alley Black towns poisoned by plastics factories to New Jersey’s blue-collar freeholds poisoned by emissions from plastics-molding processes to the working-class homeowners and renters affected by the Love Canal toxic dump to the towering infernos of cities where visually impenetrable walls of PVC soot envelop firefighters, the petrochemical industry has created many, many Environmental Justice communities.

The Telephone Exchange firefighters are icons of regulatory failure, a failure that turns our homes and workplaces into potential deathtraps and sources of permanent health impairment. The illnesses, injuries, and deaths of this cohort should not be forgotten. The cause of these illnesses, injuries, and deaths must be addressed with building codes and toxicity regulations. Negligence and corruption in code and regulation development made the New York Telephone Exchange Fire almost as much an act of terrorism as the attack on the World Trade Center. 

The petrochemical industry will lose massive revenue because of climate change imperatives that limit fossil fuels. It plans to compensate by making more plastics and finding more ways of replacing traditional materials with them. If the industry succeeds in this change, the firefighting environment will present even more hazards to health and life. We must honor the New York Telephone Exchange firefighters by preventing this cynical gambit and by demanding protective building codes and toxics regulations.


When the NY Cancer Resource Alliance and F.A.C.E.S Foundation (Firefighters Against Cancer & Exposures) learned about Dan Noonan's presentation, national ambassadors like "Cousin Sal" Banchitta (Ret. FDNY FF from Ladder 316), Dave Dachinger (Ret. Lt. from the Ridgefield CT Fire Department) and F.A.C.E.S. President Lt. Chris Conner (Bedford TX) flocked at the opportunity to partner with the NY Fire Bell Club to present Dan's long awaited Lifetime Achievement Honor.  "It's about time Dan received the recognition he long deserved all DECADES of public speaking and outreach! As a direct historian for the 1975 Fire, all firefighters throughout the US continues to learn from this and other disasters and thanks to the power of his writing and his videos in YouTube, his voice IS ALSO OUR VOICE to support all first responders. Dan is the original torch bearer and an inspiration to us all!"  In a separate interview after the 11/9 event, Chief Nieto stated, “Dan has unending passion to bring a lot of knowledge about prevention and early detection … especially for the 'probies' and the younger members. They hear these talks in the fire academy, but Dan continues to keep stressing it- really bringing it home.  The importance of self-responsibility and self-awareness about safety- especially after its job.”

Thanks in part to the NY Fire Bell Club and the cooperation from Verizon, sources say the 699 responders of the 1975 Fire are about to is receive the proper and due recognition for their sacrifice and service in the form of a memorial plaque to be installed at the former NY Tel Exchange building (204 Second Avenue and Thirteenth Street in the East Village, NYC) plus a street naming related to the fire.   The unveiling is said to occur in early February, 2022.


1) "In the Mouth of the Dragon- Toxic Fires in the Age of Plastics"- by Deborah Wallace, Ph.D. - 1990, Avery Publishing Group.

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  1. Dan
    your hard, always doing the right thing work
    finally rewarded God Bless You

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