CA wildfires bring toxic exposures to communities
Kathy Attar, MPH
October 18, 2017
The wildfires in California are a public health disaster. In the short term, California residents must deal with air pollutants including particulate matter, which is linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The air is also likely filled with hazardous chemicals including arsenic and lead from the burning of building materials and paint. Many houses in the area were built with vinyl siding, so it's very likely that the smoke was also laced with dioxins, which are formed when polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is burned. Dioxins are highly toxic. They can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones, and cause cancer.
In the longer term, residents who return to burned-out areas must contend with the dust or ash left behind and what’s in it. Asbestos fibers are one concern. Asbestos was most commonly used in floor and ceiling tiles, insulations and roofing materials. Asbestos is a known carcinogen, and inhalation of asbestos fibers is known to cause respiratory problems and lung diseases such as Mesothelioma.
In addition, electronics burned in the fire could contain a long list of substances that are known to be harmful to people, including: hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen; phthalates, which are hormone disruptors and can cause birth defects, learning disabilities and fertility issues; and brominated flame retardants, which are also hormone disruptors and can increase cancer risks.
Certain populations are particularly susceptible to exposure to hazardous chemicals. Children have greater exposure to environmental toxins than adults, as they eat more food, drink more water, and breathe more air per unit of body weight. They are also less able to detoxify chemicals. Developing fetuses are also vulnerable. There are particular windows of time during fetal development when exposure might lead to long-term harm.
The California fires are unprecedented in their scope and number of residents impacted. One might look to the clean-up of the buildings after 9/11 to find similar chemical exposures. Researchers believe the dust at the Ground Zero recovery site contained a hazardous mix of airborne particles including aluminum, asbestos, glass and the remnants of burned jet fuel. Scientists studying exposure to those airborne hazards have linked them to lung disease, asthma and cancer.
Public health experts are recommending California residents take precautions to protect themselves from the toxic ash.
We’re seeing an increase in devastating wildfires in California and other parts of the country, and it’s only going to get worse as the climate gets warmer and drier. We must continue to push for health-protective clean air and climate change policies. Tell the EPA that dismantling climate rules places our health at-risk.