Nearly one month after the Northern California’s Camp Fire incinerated the town of Paradise, residents are returning to a scene of toxic devastation that could jeopardize their long-term health.
The area is polluted with a dangerous brew of mercury, lead, arsenic, heavy metals, dioxin — even radioactive materials. Environmental health authorities issued a hazard advisory, urging locals to wear full-body Tyvek suits, gloves and close-fitting masks to safely visit the scorched rubble of their former homes. A statement from the Butte County Health Advisor warned that tap water “should be considered unsafe.
The deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record in California, the Camp Fire torched 153,000 acres, destroying more than 18,000 homes and businesses and killing 88 people. Many of those killed were disabled or elderly, as the Sacramento Bee reported.
For those remaining, authorities are only beginning to grapple with the long-term health toll.
How toxic are wildfires?
A new government analysis of California’s 2018 wildfire season suggests the fires spewed around 68 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air. As U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke noted last week, “...this analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey also shows just how bad catastrophic fires are for the environment and for the public's health.” The analysis rated wildfire pollution as roughly on par with pollution produced by an entire year’s worth of statewide electrical use.
The Camp Fire’s aftermath has left behind estimated 6 to 8 million tons of toxic rubble, ash and other hazards strewn over an area roughly the size of Chicago, as Los Angeles Times reported. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is managing the Camp Fire clean-up, said it must deal with tons of hazardous and carcinogenic materials such as lead, asbestos, pesticides and herbicides.
Health authorities in Butte County, where the town of Paradise is located, say they are only beginning to grapple with the lasting and harmful effects of what they call “high and concerning levels” of carcinogens in the area.
Too dangerous to breathe
The devastation has fouled the air in Northern California, spreading dangerous plumes of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, organic carbon and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), per the NASA Earth Observatory, which produced a computer animation of the noxious smoke.
Too tiny to see, particulate matter is the deadliest form of air pollution. PM2.5 enters the lungs and wreaks havoc on human tissues and organs.
Medical research has linked particulates to serious health conditions, including heart attacks, respiratory issues and early death. Right now, it’s too soon to say how many people in California will feel the health effects of these dangerous pollutants and other wildfire-related toxins.