On September 17, 2010, a combined total of more than 440 residential and commercial units of what used to be the BC Hydro building in downtown Vancouver were evacuated when toxic fumes and smoke began pouring out from an area being treated with polyurethane foam. Workers were attempting to raise a concrete terrace when the hazardous chemicals within the foam caught fire.
The aftermath of the incident resulted in contamination concerns, traffic stops for several blocks, and ultimately, 10 lawsuits being filed in the Supreme and Provincial courts of British Columbia. Occupants of the building, both residential and commercial, filed claims against the City of Vancouver and True North Concrete, the contractor assigned to the project.
True North is also filing a suit against the strata council of the location and the suppliers of the chemicals used in the incident. Company directors state that strata management hired True North to lift a section of concrete in the basement of the building, assuring the contractor that there was nothing below the slab except gravel and sand.
However, when workers started pumping the polyurethane foam, they soon noticed a sizeable void underneath the concrete. Even though the maximum volume of foam for the project had been reached, True North claims that strata management signaled them to continue pumping chemicals into the area. They also claim that the chemical supply company owner was contacted regarding concerns of the high volume of chemicals being used, but they were unphased by the warning.
In total, 993 liters of polyurethane were pumped beneath the walkway, resulting in smoke and a noxious odor being released into the building and surrounding blocks the next day. The chemical suppliers insisted that these fumes were typical of the type of work being done, however residents of the building (now known as Electra) are citing cognitive deficiencies, neurological injury, blurry vision, dizziness, fatigue, chronic pain and depression—all as a result of inhaling the chemical fumes upon returning to the building after nearly a week-long evacuation.
The residents blamed True North and Electra management for failing to warn them about the dangerous aspects of poly foam lifting, and other uses, and the overall safety concerns of the project. They also filed suit against the City of Vancouver for failing to confirm that the building was in a safe condition before its inhabitants returned, partly due to lack of emergency procedure training for employees involved in the incident. The building was labeled as safe for return for residents on September 23, 2010, only six days after the incident, and many commercial units on the lower level and in the basement remained closed.
An additional problem was that, according to city officials, no one knew what chemicals to test for to ensure the building is safe again. A deputy fire chief in Vancouver noted that there aren’t any similar occurrences to point to as reference. On top of that, there was a growing concern amongst residents that any toxic chemical fumes might bind to carpets and curtains.