As wildfires devour communities, toxic threats emerge

PARADISE, Calif. (Reuters) – As an uncontrollable wildfire turned the California town of Paradise to ash, air pollution researcher Keith Bein knew he had to act fast: Little is known about toxic chemicals released when a whole town burns and the wind would soon blow away evidence.

FILE PHOTO: Vanthy Bizzle hands some small religious figurines to her husband Brett Bizzle in the remains of their home after returning for the first time since the Camp Fire forced them to evacuate in Paradise, California, U.S. November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

He drove the roughly 100 miles to Paradise, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, from his laboratory at the University of California, Davis, only to be refused entrance under rules that allow first responders and journalists – but not public health researchers – to cross police lines.

It was the second time Bein says he was unable to gather post-wildfire research in a field so new public safety agencies have not yet developed procedures for allowing scientists into restricted areas.

Fires like the one that razed Paradise last November burn thousands of pounds of wiring, plastic pipes and building materials, leaving dangerous chemicals in the air, soil and water. Lead paint, burned asbestos and even melted refrigerators from tens of thousands of households only add to the danger, public health experts say.

Bein’s experience highlights the difficulties in assessing the impact of today’s massive disasters, whether wildfires that burn entire towns or flooding after major hurricanes, incidents scientists say are becoming more common due to climate change.

“Everything that we’re doing, it feels like this is a question nobody has asked before, and we have no answers,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, director of the Environmental Health Sciences Center at U.C. Davis.

Researchers are examining soil tested for the presence of chemical compounds in neighborhoods destroyed by the 2017 wildfire that swept into Santa Rosa, located in California’s Sonoma County north of the Bay Area, and comparing it to uninhabited land nearby where only trees had burned, Hertz-Picciotto said. In that still-uncompleted study, researchers found nearly 2,000 more chemical compounds in the soil than in uninhabited parkland nearby. Researchers are now working to identify the compounds.

While scientists have studied wildfires for decades — learning much about the impact on air, soil and nearby ecosystems — fires that race from the forest into large urban communities were, until recently, exceedingly rare.

COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH

As natural disasters increase in scope and frequency, public health researchers across the United States are developing new lines of inquiry with unusual speed.

Scientists, many of them funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), are studying pregnant women exposed to polluted air and water after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017; residents of Puerto Rico forced to live in unrepaired homes where mold and fungi grew after Hurricane Maria in 2017; eggs from backyard chickens that ate California wildfire ash, among other topics.

“It’s fundamentally critical that we be able to understand these situations and the risks to populations both in the short term and in the long term,” said NIEHS senior medical adviser Aubrey Miller, who is helping to develop quick-response disaster research cutting across scientific specialties.

To do that, NIEH has sped up the time it needs to fund research, from months or years to as little as 120 days, said Gwen Collman, who directs the agency’s work with outside researchers.

At U.C. Davis, where researchers are studying eggs from backyard chickens that may have breathed smoke and pecked at ash in areas affected by wildfires, the work is complicated.

“In an urban fire you’re dealing with contaminants that don’t go away – arsenic, heavy metals, copper, lead, transformer fluid, brake fluid, fire retardant,” said veterinarian Maurice Pitesky, who is leading the study.

Any contaminants found in the eggs could stem from other factors such as the proximity of the home to a factory, a waste disposal site or a highway, he said.

In an as-yet-uncompleted study, researchers have tested eggs sent by individual owners of roughly 350 backyard properties concerned about possible contamination from wildfires and other causes, researcher Todd Kelman said. The locations of the yards were mapped to see which homeowners lived near wildfire areas, and the eggs were tested to see if they have high levels of contaminants such as lead, cadmium and other chemicals associated with human buildings and activities.

COMBING PARADISE

One recent morning, teams from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in white hazmat suits combed through Paradise, loading seared paint cans, partially melted pesticide containers and the remains of propane tanks onto trucks to be hauled away.

Rusty Harris Bishop, a toxics expert with the EPA who worked on the Paradise cleanup, said removal teams take away whatever contaminants they find, including melted pipes or asbestos-laden construction materials, going beyond the older definition of hazardous household waste.

But cleanup protocols after such disasters are evolving along with the public health science, he said. 

That gap in knowledge concerns researchers like Bein, who plans to train as a firefighter to get access to the burned areas in the next big blaze.

“As these types of fires become more frequent in nature, where instead of once every decade it’s once every summer … then we really need to know how this is going to affect health,” Bein said.

Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler

Source

more recommended stories

  • Senator Gillibrand wants insurance to pay for fertility treatments

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Democratic presidential.

  • Hundreds rally at U.S. Supreme Court, calling state abortion bans as step backward

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Abortion-rights campaigners, including.

  • French court says doctors must resume life support for paralyzed patient

    STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) – A French.

  • Missouri follows Alabama by passing restrictive abortion bill

    (Reuters) – Missouri lawmakers passed a.

  • Too much screen time tied to school problems even in little kids

    (Reuters Health) – Kindergarteners who get.

  • Smokers have higher risk for multiple strokes

    (Reuters Health) – Smokers who have.

  • Missouri assembly passes restrictive abortion bill, days after Alabama

    (Reuters) – The lower house of.

  • Missouri Senate passes bill to ban abortions after eight weeks

    (Reuters) – Missouri’s Senate passed a.

  • Alabama governor signs strictest U.S. abortion ban into law

    (Reuters) – Alabama’s governor signed a.

  • Alabama Senate bans nearly all abortions, including rape cases

    (Reuters) – Alabama’s state Senate passed.

  • Israel regulator warns of medical cannabis bubble, eyes Australia pact

    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Medical cannabis could.

  • U.S. measles outbreak grows with 75 new cases, mostly in New York

    (Reuters) – U.S. health authorities recorded.

  • Teva Pharm CFO says company did not conspire to fix prices

    FILE PHOTO: The logo of Teva.

  • U.S. states accuse Teva, other drugmakers, of price-fixing: lawsuit

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. states filed.

  • Exclusive: Philip Morris suspends social media campaign after Reuters exposes young ‘influencers’

    (Reuters) – Cigarette maker Philip Morris.

  • Hong Kong reports African swine fever case

    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong.

  • Alabama Senate delays vote on strict anti-abortion bill

    (Reuters) – Alabama’s state Senate on.

  • Denver votes to become first U.S. city to decriminalize ‘magic mushrooms’

    Psilocybin or “magic mushrooms” are seen.

  • AstraZeneca-Daiichi Sankyo breast cancer drug shows promise

    The company logo for pharmaceutical company.

  • Denver to vote on decriminalizing ‘magic mushrooms’

    FILE PHOTO: Boxes containing magic mushrooms.

  • Trans teens face higher sexual assault risk when schools restrict bathrooms

    (Reuters Health) – Transgender adolescents may.

  • U.S. doctors use medical records to fight measles outbreak

    CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. doctors are.

  • UK’s Vectura wins patent infringement case against GlaxoSmithKline in U.S

    (Reuters) – British drugmaker Vectura Group.

  • Tyson Foods recalls almost 12 million pounds of chicken strips over contamination fears

    (Reuters) – Tyson Foods Inc significantly.

  • Monstrous rumors stoke hostility to Pakistan’s anti-polio drive

    PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – His bearded.

  • U.S. health agency finalizes conscience and religious freedom rule

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Department.

  • Medication use drops when local drugstores close

    (Reuters Health) – People are less.

  • EPA says popular weed killer glyphosate is not a carcinogen

    CHICAGO (Reuters) – The U.S. Environmental.

  • Novartis’s Sandoz strikes deal for biosimilar of Herceptin

    FILE PHOTO: Swiss drugmaker Novartis’ logo.

  • U.S. measles outbreak triggers quarantine at two Los Angeles universities

    LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A nationwide.

  • U.S. measles outbreak raises questions about immunity in adults

    (Reuters) – Adults in the United.

  • FDA approves expanded label for Regeneron/Sanofi’s cholesterol drug

    (Reuters) – The U.S. Food and.