The Environmental Protection Agency detected smoke particles in the air near an ongoing plastics fire in Indiana, officials said Wednesday, raising fears that cancer-causing toxins could be spreading through the area.

Smoke from the fires is always expected to send tiny particles into the air as it spreads, but laboratory tests could take several days or even weeks to determine which particular compounds are polluting Richmond and surrounding communities, according to the EPA. .

The agency said in a statement Wednesday that it has «begun collecting debris samples in the surrounding community to determine if asbestos-containing materials may have left the site.»

«Asbestos-containing materials may be present due to the age of the building. EPA reminds residents to leave debris alone and not touch it until EPA sample results are available. Do not cut the grass over the rubble,» the statement said.

Richmond is a city of about 35,700 people about 70 miles east of Indianapolis. The warehouse where the fire started contained large amounts of bulk recycled and shredded plastic, according to city officials.

Jason Sewell, an EPA on-scene coordinator, said at a news conference Wednesday that the agency is testing for various toxins, including styrene and benzene.

Asked if any of the chemicals that might be spreading are carcinogenic, Sewell said: «A lot of them are.»

He urged residents to stay away from any debris that falls on their property.

Utility workers remove area utilities as firefighters dump water on an industrial fire in Richmond, Indiana on April 12, 2023.
Utility workers remove utility components from the area as firefighters pour water on an industrial fire in Richmond, Indiana, on Wednesday. Michael Conroy/AP

«Depending on the age of the building, there may be asbestos-containing materials and some debris that may have come off the site,» he said. «So we understand that people are finding debris. Some of the images appear to be melted plastic. Some of the images appear to be roofing material.»

Up to 2,000 residents have been displaced from their homes, according to the state Department of Homeland Security.

Schools will be closed for a second day in a row on Thursday, and the large-scale blaze could last until Saturday, Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown told MSNBC.

The first calls came in at 2:40 p.m. ET Tuesday, authorities said. Firefighters had to deal with strong winds and intense flames, but they kept the flames away from nearby houses.

“Yesterday our access was greatly hampered by the trash and piles of plastic surrounding the complex,” Brown said at a news conference. “The problem was the unsafe building and the unsafe grounds.”

Richmond Mayor Dave Snow told reporters that the owner of the recycling plant had previously been subpoenaed and ordered to clean up the property, but had ignored the order.

“We have gone through several steps since then to direct this particular business owner to clean up this property because we knew that what was operating here was a fire hazard,” Snow said, adding: “That business owner is fully responsible. of all this.»

The plant’s owner, My Way Trading, has yet to comment publicly on the fire.