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The politics of plenum

A number of individuals are anxiously awaiting the release of a report on plenum cable fires from Gary Lougheed, a project manager with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC).


July 1, 2004  


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A number of individuals are anxiously awaiting the release of a report on plenum cable fires from Gary Lougheed, a project manager with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC).

It is hoped that Lougheed, who has been working on the project for four years on behalf of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers, will be able to quantify just how hazardous communication cable fires in air plenums really are.

He refused to comment on any findings for this issue’s in-depth cover story on health, safety and abandoned cable written by Perry Greenbaum, preferring instead to wait until its release expected sometime this summer or in the early fall.

It is known that the project included surveys in North American office buildings to determine the types and quantities of cable in return air plenums and fire scenarios that could potentially ignite the cables.

Studies aside, clearly the biggest concern is how long it is taking for the abandoned cable issue to be resolved.

Despite the fact a number of scientists and environmental groups say that a critical mass of cable sitting unused in buildings multiplies the risk of fires and associated health problems to office employees once it deteriorates, many building owners are finding ways to circumvent various laws.

Politics are also playing a role. In the U.S., for example, the National Electric Code (NEC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), appear at odds over what to do with abandoned cable. They are the type of safety issues that Lougheed and others are scrutinizing in Canada.

There are also battles going on between the two standards writing committees.

“The NEC are in the electronics business and their interest lies in getting power to workstations,” says John Michlovic, national marketing and technical manager with H.H. Robertson Floor Systems in Pittsburgh Pa.. “They are not experts on fire, smoke and flame. Therefore, they are ready to let you off the hook if you want to red-tag (abandoned cable) for two, five or 10 years.

“The NFPA on the other hand cares about what happens inside the plenum space. They consider any material not in use as storage. And storage material must be removed.” Finally, there is the controversy surrounding perfluorooctanoic acid, an essential processing aid in the manufacturing of fluoroplymers.

Chemical giant DuPont uses it in its fire-resistant material Teflon FEP, a resident used to jacket and insulate plenum cable. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alleged in July that the company failed to report a key ingredient, a charge, DuPont denied. The evidence from over 50 years of experience and extensive scientific studies supports our conclusion that PFOA does not harm human health or the environment, the company said in a statement.

There are a number of scientists and environmental groups who disagree, which is why all abandoned cable should be removed immediately.

Unfortunately, the chance of that happening is as remote as man flying to Mars within the next five years.

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You can reach Vaios Petsis at (416) 510-6755 and Paul Barker at (416) 510-6752.

Fax: (416) 510-5134


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