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Health, Safety & Toxins

One industry watcher who asked not to be identified concluded recently that people die from inhaling toxic gasses, not smoke. He also waded into the FT-4 vs. FT-6 debate saying that none of the proponents of the more expensive FT-6 discuss toxicity, only smoke.


March 1, 2007  


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Three years ago at the National Electrical Contractors Association’s VDV/IBS Conference in Las Vegas, Frank Bisbee, president of the Communications Planning Corp., in Jacksonville, Fla., talked about the inherent dangers caused by abandoned cable and the opportunities available to contractors as a result of sweeping changes contained in the latest version of that country’s National Electrical Code.

Soon after its arrival, Henkels & McCoy, a privately held engineering, network development and construction firm with headquarters in Blue Bell, Pa., issued an advisory in which it noted that electricians, inspectors and low voltage contractors will use NEC Codebook 2002 for installation and inspections, while lawyers and insurance companies use it to determine criminal liability and/or financial responsibility resulting from a catastrophic event. The NEC defines abandoned cable as installed communications cable that is not terminated at both ends at a connector or other equipment and not identified “For Future Use” with a tag.

Bisbee, for one, applauded the move. “The accumulation of miles and miles of cabling left in the ceilings and walls of facilities has become a major concern for life safety over the past years,” he said in his presentation to NECA delegates.

“Cables that are abandoned in ceilings, riser systems and air handling systems are a source for fueling fire, smoke and sub-lethal toxic fumes that can incapacitate. In addition, PVC jackets tend to break down over time. This decomposition process is accelerated by exposure to increased temperatures and humidity.”

In Canada, a requirement was added to the 2005 version of the National Fire Code to control the accumulation of communication cables and other abandoned cables in plenums. Then again, according to some experts in the field, the standards fiasco is a mute point for whether it is abandoned or live cable, the problem is not how big a fire/smoke risk they are, but how high or low the toxicity levels might be.

As one industry watcher who asked not to be identified concluded recently, people die from inhaling toxic gasses, not smoke. He also waded into the FT-4 vs. FT-6 debate saying that none of the proponents of the more expensive FT-6 discuss toxicity, only smoke. There are, he added, a lot of myths and half-truths on this subject.

Toxicity testing needed

Dunn Harvey, a veteran telecommunications consultant based in Laval, Que., agrees that the real problem is toxicity and not smoke by itself.

“In most cases (except fog) smoke will contain numerous toxic gasses. In all cases of fire, carbon monoxide is generated. This is extremely lethal and it is next to impossible to prevent it in any fire and it does not depend on cable having FT-4 or FT-6 rating.

“Since the real problem is toxicity, until someone finds a way to test for toxicity and eliminate the toxicity, there will not be a real answer to people dying from inhaling gasses and smoke.”

Nova Scotia native Bill Graham, the founder of Mississauga Training Consultants, an industrial skills training firm that offers certification for fiber optic installers, instrumentation, network cabling systems inspection and other industry specific courses for the electrical and communications industry, describes the current situation as quite a mess. He estimates that not only is 90% of cabling that is currently sitting somewhere in ceilings not being used, but there is also confusion over what type of cabling is acceptable.

“In Nova Scotia if you install data cable, first off you must have a license, secondly, you need a permit and third, it will be inspected,” says Graham, a master electrician by trade. “The province has rules in their Electrical code that I love, one of them being that every third tie wrap must be non-combustible and the cable bundle must have a separate attachment.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the same rules in other provinces. As an example, we have a network cabling apprenticeship program in Ontario that is turning out some real good apprentices, but they do not have any codes to work to.” Section 54 and Section 60 have still not been reinstated in the Ontario Electrical Safety Code.

Bisbee, meanwhile, says that when it comes to abandoned cable as a health hazard there is no question that the situation in Canada mirrors that of the U.S. There is also similar confusion over the true letter of the law.

Toxic nightmare

“First of all, the plenum issue in the U.S. is covered under a code that refers to this buildup of abandoned cable as a fire hazard,” says Bisbee. “It is not primarily a fire hazard. It is a toxic hazard.

“Calling it a fire hazard is a neat way to try and hide the really big problem. The real problem is how many thousands and thousands of pounds of lead in those jackets are sluffing off in the air system? The thermal plastics containing lead stabilizers used in most cables are a problem, nobody’s recycling it.

“What we have is a toxic nightmare. It’s like saying the reason we are taking the asbestos out is because of the fire hazard. That’s where we are right now. You can call it what ever you want to call it, it’s the law of the land in this country and many others that have adopted the National Electrical Code.

“In the cabling business, one of the components used in the stabilizer was lead. It was cheap, it was effective and it allowed the cable to last longer under heat and humidity. It also allowed the machines to run faster when they were extruding it.”

“Now, about 90% of all that cable installed the air systems are jacketed with materials that have high concentrations of lead — anywhere from 7-10%. Even at 1%, which would be many, many times over what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is saying exposure limits are, we are looking at more than 10,000 parts per million.”

When it comes to abandoned cable, meanwhile, Robert Horne, co-founder of the Attain Group, an Ottawa firm that provides independent telecommunications consulting services to both public and private real estate owners, federal government departments, architectural and construction engineering firms, and tenants, follows a simple credo.

“If it is not used, it should be pulled out,” he says. “It’s the same as leaving old wood and paper around that could catch fire. It’s an extra fuel that is not needed. The bottom line is this: You have a fuel load in the ceiling and if it’s abandoned, remove it.

“As far as the toxicity of the cable is concerned, the National Fire Code allows for an FT-6 and FT-4 rating. If a code change was to occur that says it must be this type of cable, of course we would abide by it, but until that time, I would not advise anyone to change to low smoke, specialty cable that is very expensive.

Few firms pull cable out

“If it is that much of an issue then I would say the legislators and the people who make the changes to the code, should be making those changes. Why would I advise them to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more for the wrong type of cable? It’s just a complete waste of money.”

If there is any doubt, Horne turns to a codes specialist in order to get a proper interpretation of the building and fire codes currently in existence.

Ross McCubbin, founder of Amik Technology, an IT consulting firm based in Thunder Bay, Ont. that specializes in infrastructure building design, managed cable systems and telecommunications design and support, concedes that few organizations pull cable out.

“Sometimes companies will move in and try and re-use cabling, but more often than not when they move, especially rental properties, they tend to cut the wire across the cross-connect they had and away they go, which can render it useless for the next guy,” he says. “It means there is a whole bunch of PVC and FEP cabling out there.

“As those cables sit there, they are breaking down. A lot of it is generated by the decomposition of the jacket and it’s blowing
around in the air spaces and eventually down on the people.”

So what is it going to take to solve the abandoned cable crisis? McCubbin for one, advocates a combination of increased education and legislation. “Education can go a long way,” he says. “Ideally, there should be a level playing field from a code and quality control perspective.”