By Jamie Leary

SUPERIOR, Colo. (CBS4) – Air quality testing continues inside the burn zone of the Marshall Fire. Researchers with NOAA are analyzing samples of the air outside, and on Monday, CBS4 tagged along with researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, studying air quality inside homes still standing.

“This was not a regular wildfire. What was burning here was homes and buildings and couches and all kinds of things that you really should not burn, and we don’t know as well what you get from those,” said Joost de Gouw, a Chemistry Professor at CU Boulder.

(credit: CBS)

The air pollution study is funded by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies (CIRES), a partner of both NOAA and CU Boulder. The institute was able to provide equipment to test air quality in 10 homes within the burn zone.

The equipment is high tech, and de Gouw along with around seven graduate students have spent the last nine days analyzing real-time data. Everything from the particulate matter in homes to what’s known as aromatic compounds.

“Unfortunately, our homes are a little bit like a sponge. They soaked up a lot of the smoke and then after the fire, they slowly outgas. They give those compounds back to the air outside and that is what you smell inside,” de Gouw said. “That outgassing is not going to last forever, it will gradually get better and better and better, but it takes a long time and that’s one of the things we’re trying to measure here.”

(credit: CBS)

CBS4 visited a home near old Superior where a handful of students was working. While there were no doors or windows open at the time of the fire, you could see that ash was coating the floors and windows.

Fortunately, levels of particulate matter were not a huge concern, but the machines were still testing to see what happened when there was human disturbance or when fans began to run.

The concern came when testing the aromatic compounds.

“This instrument measures the gasses you can smell,” said de Gouw.

What it picked up was high levels of toluene and benzene.

“So, of all the things we measure, benzene is one compound we focus on first because it’s a carcinogenic compound. Now benzene is quite common in the atmosphere even when it’s not that polluted. Cars emit benzine for instance, but fires are a large source of benzene so that’s the compound we’re zooming in on,” he said.

The level of the compound found inside the home was around 10 times higher than what was detected outside.

(credit: CBS)

“There are levels where they become acutely damaging to us, we’re not nearly close to those levels we’re much much lower but if you were to live here and be exposed to that level for a long period of time, it would enhance your risk of benzene exposure.”

The good news is that the levels detected have been declining since the researcher’s arrival- that was without any mitigation like cleaning or ventilation.

“We’ve measured here now for about nine days and its already come down noticeably, but the decline will get slower and slower and slower, so we expect it to take another few weeks, in the absence of active cleaning,” he said.

Professor de Gouw said down the road, changes in the weather and debris cleanup could produce more wind-blown ash inside of homes, but wouldn’t likely have an adverse impact on the level of the aromatic compounds.

While some homeowners are opting to use restoration companies, he believes simple ventilation techniques will make a big difference in the immediate future, like open doors and windows.

“That outgassing is not going to last forever it will gradually get better and better and better, but it takes a long time and that’s one of the things we’re trying to measure here,” he said.

While the CU researchers plan to be around for at least another two weeks, de Gouw says there is a lot of interest in studying the bigger picture from many different areas of expertise, for as long as it takes.

“As long people have questions, I think we’ll be motivated to make measurements and provide answer,” he said.

Jamie Leary