Thomas Robinson | October 6th, 2020
Attention is being drawn to municipal water contamination in Californian towns after exposure to devastating wildfires.
After the Camp fires ravaged California in 2018, testing of municipal water systems revealed widespread contamination by volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Unfortunately, it isn’t known exactly how VOCs infiltrate the water pipes, however, it is thought that potentially melted plastics, or contaminated air and broken pipes could be the cause. Another issue for the recovering areas is that many water pipes in California are polyethylene based, which can melt during fires. These pipes can absorb VOCs flowing through them and release them over a longer time period at lower concentrations.
One chemical measured in water tests that could be absorbed and leeched over time is Benzene, a known human carcinogen. Benzene showed up at levels over two thousand times the federal level in drinking water samples after the Tubbs fire in 2017. Benzene is part of a family of contaminants called BTEX which are connected to petroleum products.
Fire damaged drinking water systems pose another challenge for struggling families returning to their homes after wildfires. Contamination at the levels observed after wildfire events can lead to acute and chronic health outcomes, which will leave their mark on the affected communities for years to come.