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Your stuff can kill you: How hoarding creates death traps

There's a secret hoarder within us all -- and it is hazardous to your health


James Wallman
March 22, 2015 9:30PM (UTC)
Excerpted from the book "STUFFOCATION"

One Man’s Stuff is Another Man’s Firetrap: Canada’s Katrina

Walk up to any firefighter in Toronto, ask him where he was on Friday, September 24, 2010, and he won’t hesitate to tell you. Asking him this is like asking most people where they were on 9/11, or the day Kennedy or Diana died. Because that date, 24/9/10, is branded onto the collective memory of the Toronto Fire Services.

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By midnight that Friday, Toronto’s St James Town Community Center looked like a refugee camp, albeit a first-world one. People – men, women, children, babies, the elderly – were in the lobby, the halls, the gym, everywhere, mopped up and swept there by the emergency services. The human clutter that gets tossed aside in any disaster, they stood about and sat around, unsettled, dishevelled, coughing. The Red Cross, and a local politician, handed out pieces of pizza, slices of orange, and bottles of water. News hounds sought out anyone in the thousand-plus crowd who would talk. They asked questions and scribbled down answers. Some of the evacuees curled up on the temporary beds that had been wheeled in. Others, like John Ploeg, complained they couldn’t sleep on those things. ‘This,’ he said, looking around, ‘is Toronto’s Katrina.’

That day, the sun had been shining in a clear blue sky. It had been hot, 30°C. There’d been a breeze blowing. Truth be told, it was more wind than breeze, blowing around fifty kilometres an hour, and gusting up to seventy.

A call came through to Toronto Fire Services about a fire in an apartment just after 5 p.m. No one was too worried. These things usually took an hour or so to put out.

The first clue that this small domestic incident might be about to turn into a six-alarm fire – the highest level Toronto Fire Services assign to a blaze – was when the first responders from Station 313 arrived at 200 Wellesley Street, and went up the thirty-story, 713-apartment tower, searching for the fire. As they looked around the nineteenth floor, where the alarm had gone off, they soon realized there was no fire here. So if it wasn’t here, where was it?

The fire had been started, so a week-long official investigation would later decide, by a cigarette dropped onto the balcony of unit 2424, on the twenty-fourth floor. Usually, a stray cigarette wouldn’t have mattered so much, except this apartment, from the front door right through to the balcony, was piled high with possessions. Mostly the piles contained the legal papers and books which the inhabitant, Stephen Vassilev, had been using to fight a lawsuit over some townhouses he had once owned. From a certain point of view, unit 2424 was less an apartment, and more a 560-square-foot, one-bedroom tinderbox.

Walking five more levels up, to the twenty-fourth floor, the first responders went to approach the door and were promptly beaten back by heat so intense that the door of the unit across the hall soon started burning. ‘It was like a tunnel of hell,’ one firefighter said later.

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The men from Station 313 responded by calling in better weapons and more troops: eventually, more than 300 firefighters and twenty-seven fire engines would get involved. The firefighters at the scene switched from the regular 1.5-inch to the 2.5-inch hoses, and started using a ground monitor. This is a device firemen use in extreme situations to create a single stream of water that can dump more than thirty bath-loads of water on a fire every minute. Struggling with the heat in that tunnel of hell, the first responders plugged their hoses into one side of the ground monitor, and started pumping a river of water out the other side onto the fire. At the same time, they sprayed water on themselves to keep their suits from melting, and their skin from burning.

The heat was horrific in that corridor, but the fire service also had to think about the smoke and fumes. Smoke inhalation, after all, is the most likely killer in domestic fires. And the smoke was so thick and spreading so fast, it was forcing people back into their apartments as far away as the eleventh floor, thirteen floors below. So, while some firefighters fought the fire, others set about getting the tower’s residents to safety. They spread out across the tower, from the ground to the thirtieth floor, knocking on doors – and if there was no response, as happened in about 200 cases, smashing them in – to make sure they got the people out of the burning building to safety in the community centre.

Back on the twenty-fourth floor, the firefighters kept hosing more water into unit 2424, but the fire kept raging. As day turned to night, orange flames were still licking up the outside of the building. The air in the tunnel of hell was still explosively hot. A divisional chief in the Toronto Fire Service who was on the scene, David Sheen, summed up the situation to a reporter from the Toronto Star. ‘The firefighters are taking a beating,’ he said.

By 11 p.m., though, the battle had turned. ‘We’re winning the war,’ said Sheen. And soon after, the fire was under control. At 1 a.m. – a full eight hours after the fire crew had been called – the all-clear was given.

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Seventeen people – three firefighters, and fourteen residents, including a one-month-old baby – went to hospital that night, suffering from burns, heat exhaustion, and smoke inhalation. Happily, all were released before morning, and, thanks to the unstinting efforts of the Toronto Fire Services, no one died.

Why had a fire that should have taken an hour and a few firemen become a six-alarm fire that took twenty-seven fire engines and 300 firefighters eight hours to put out, and endangered the lives of more than 1,000 people? There were a variety of factors, like the high winds and the lack of sprinklers in the building. But the most straightforward answer can be summed up in three words: too much stuff.

The Secret Hoarder in You

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Before the fire, the resident of unit 2424, Stephen Vassilev, and his cat, Fonzy, could have been stars in a genre of reality TV that has become popular in recent years: the hoarding show. There have been so many that you could say there’s been a clutter of hoarding shows, from one-off documentaries like Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder and Help! I’m a Hoarder, to season-long series such as Hoarding: Buried Alive, Extreme Clutter, The Hoarder Next Door, and Hoarders – which was the most popular show in the American network A&E’s history when it first aired in 2009.

If you’re one of the millions who has seen a hoarding show, chances are you’ve been amused, shocked, and amazed – that a person can gather so many things, function despite the clutter, and find so many bottle tops, plastic bags, and broken fridges worth keeping. You have also probably felt pity that this person has drifted so far from normal living, and hoped that they will get better.

These reactions are a great stimulus for water-cooler conversation, and they keep audiences coming back (and networks airing more hoarding shows). But I think there is an even more important reason why so many of us keep watching hoarding programmes: because they resonate with the hoarder lurking inside every one of us. The more I have discovered about hoarding, you see, the more I have realized there is a hoarder in me. As you find out more, I think you might recognize the secret hoarder in you too.

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Till the 1990s, few experts thought much about hoarding. It was marked down as one of the nine causes of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and even then a rare condition, limited to a few dilapidated minds and wealthy homes. This idea had come, principally, from an infamous story about two reclusive brothers, Langley and Homer Collyer.

When the brothers died in March 1947, and police entered their three-story, twelve-room brownstone in New York City, they found, piled from floor to within a foot or two of the ceilings, 120 tons of stuff: newspapers, tin cans, magazines, umbrellas, a gas chandelier, the top of a horse-drawn carriage, a rusty bicycle, fourteen grand pianos, an early X-ray machine, a Model T Ford, the remains of a two-headed fetus, a canoe – and, through it all, tunnels to move around, and booby traps that would drop rocks or bales of newspapers on anyone who dared try to enter. It was one of those newspaper traps that had killed Langley.

The story of these two eccentric hoarders has fascinated people ever since. At the time, thousands of New Yorkers turned out to see the stuff being hauled out of the old mansion. To this day, firefighters on the East Coast call hoarding homes ‘Collyer mansions’. The story has been the subject of articles, books, and movies. And, in the early 1990s, it inspired a young psychology student called Rachel Gross to conduct a study on hoarding with her professor, a recognized expert on OCD called Randy Frost. When they published their findings in 1993, they changed the accepted wisdom on hoarding.

We now know, thanks to another two decades of studies, that hoarding is not a rare condition. Experts now believe that hoarding is twice as common as OCD, and that somewhere between 2 and 6 per cent of people in developed countries suffer from it: there could be as many eighteen million hoarders in the U.S., and 3.5 million in the UK. No wonder so many watch hoarding shows on TV.

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Hoarding, so researchers have concluded, happens principally because of three connected problems. One, hoarders have too much stuff coming in: some are compulsive shoppers, some can’t say no to free stuff. Two, they have too little going out: they keep things because they think they are beautiful, or interesting, or important. They keep things ‘just in case’ and because ‘you never know when they might come in handy’. They keep things that were gifts or that have sentimental value. Three, hoarders are terrible at organizing. They can’t work out what is important and what isn’t. They can’t decide how to categorize things or where to put them.

Consider these issues for a moment, and I think you will begin to see what I mean about the secret hoarder inside every one of us. Because who hasn’t confronted these problems and thought these thoughts at some point? Who hasn’t, in the middle of a clear-out, kept something ‘just in case’, even though they haven’t used it for years? Who doesn’t have clothes that they hope will fit or become fashionable again one day? Who doesn’t keep DIY parts or sports gear they haven’t used for years because you never know when they could come in handy? And who hasn’t, when challenged, said, ‘But I like it!’ out loud, as if that were enough to explain why something is worth keeping?

There is no material difference between you and a clinically diagnosed hoarder, you see. It is a difference of degree. ‘The features of hoarding are on a continuum,’ says Gail Steketee, author, with Randy Frost, of a book about hoarding called Stuff. ‘Hoarding is an extreme version, but in today’s society we all face the same difficult decisions all the time: do I buy this? Do I keep that? And we all save things for the same reasons: because it’s pretty, because it reminds us of something, because it’s useful. But some people go overboard on what they think is pretty or sentimental or useful – and they’re the ones with hoarding issues.’

Think about that continuum for a moment, because I think it explains why one in three households in the U.S. contains a collector, why one in ten Americans rents storage space, and why one in twenty is a hoarder.

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Now, picture that continuum as a line, with zero at one end and ten at the other. If zero was an ascetic – a monk, say – with no physical possessions, and if ten was the hoarder whose home was so full there was stuff piled to the ceiling and you could only get about by crawling on all fours, what number are you?

I ask because where you sit on that continuum matters. It matters whether you’re a two or a five or an eight because, as we saw in the case of Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, and in Repetti and Saxbe’s studies, how much stuff you have can have a major impact on your psychological wellbeing. And it matters because, as we learned in the story of the fire in apartment 2424, too much stuff can have an even more immediate and dangerous effect on your physical health – thanks to the role it plays in a phenomenon called flashover.

Flashover is the moment when so much heat has built up in a confined space that everything in it spontaneously combusts. Flashover is something firefighters think about a lot. Get to a room before flashover, and you may still be able to rescue anyone inside. Arrive after flashover, and you will be removing charred bodies – but only later, because the first thing you’ll be doing is getting out of there. Even in full, heat-resistant firefighting kit, a fire that has flashed over will kill you in less than two seconds.

So, when flashover happens is vitally important. Thirty years ago, it tended to happen around twenty-eight or twenty-nine minutes after a fire had started. Now though – because of the increased amount of stuff in our homes, and because much of it contains plastic and synthetic materials – flashover comes much sooner. The moment from unfortunate spark to murderous explosion is now between three and four minutes.

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That is bad news for all of us, especially firefighters, anyone who has a concentration of stuff anywhere in their home, and anyone who lives near someone who struggles with clutter. It is worst news of all, and deadliest, for hoarders and their neighbours.

So far, there has only been one scientific study on hoarding fires. It was commissioned in 2009 by the fire brigade in Melbourne, Australia, after three people had died in hoarding fires in the city that year. Based on a ten-year analysis, the report noted that hoarding, in the scientific language of the report, was a ‘feature’ in only one in every 400 fires. The report also found that, in the case of fire-related deaths that are considered preventable, hoarding was a feature of one in four. Consider those numbers together for a moment and you arrive at an alarming conclusion: if you get caught in a hoarding fire, rather than an ordinary fire, you are far more likely to die.

You don’t have to be a hoarder with a nine or ten on the continuum to react to this fact. And you don’t have to be an expert of any sort to realize what this means: that if you or someone who lives near you has too much stuff – especially the sort of flammable, man-made things so many of us have in our homes – that is not only hazardous for your general, long-term health. As the report on hoarding fires showed, and as the Toronto Fire Services found out that Friday, 24 September 2010, too much stuff is not only bad for individuals – it can be a very real, life-threatening menace to society as well.

From the book "Stuffocation" by James Wallman. Copyright © 2013 by James Wallman. Published by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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James Wallman

James Wallman is a trend forecaster, journalist, and speaker who has written for The New York Times, GQ, Fast Company, and the Financial Times. His clients include Absolut, BMW, Burberry, and Nike. He has an MA in classics from Oxford University and an MA in journalism from the University of the Arts London. He has lived in France, Greece, and Palo Alto, California, and currently lives in London with his wife and children.

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