As wildfires devour towns new toxic threats emerge

Credit: Reuters Studio
Published on March 13, 2019 - Duration: 02:26s

As wildfires devour towns new toxic threats emerge

Scientists say wildfires 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.

Havovi Cooper reports.

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As wildfires devour towns new toxic threats emerge

Massive wildfires like the ones that ravaged parts of California last year-- burn thousands of pounds of wiring, plastic pipes and building materials... and leave dangerous chemicals in the air, soil and water.

As natural disasters, fueled by climate-change increase in scope and frequency, scientists are worried about the toxins they leave behind.

Just a few weeks ago, teams from the Environmental Protection Agency started combing through the town of Paradise which was completely destroyed by a wildfire last year.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) RUSTY HARRIS-BISHOP, PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICER WITH THE EPA IN SAN FRANCISCO, SAYING: "So what we do is we go into the remains of these buildings -- the garages, the sheds and the homes -- and look for those hazardous materials, so that we can take them out and get them properly disposed of before they are removed as part of that bulk debris which is typically a lot less hazardous and is sent to a landfill." While scientists have studied wildfires for decades - fires that race from the forest into large urban communities were, until recently, exceedingly rare- but that's changing (SOUNDBITE) (English) AIR POLLUTION RESEARCHER KEITH BEIN SAYING: "If these types of fire become more frequent in nature, where instead of once every decade, it's once every summer and people be exposed on a chronic level//then we really need to know how that's going to affect health so we can start to be prepared for that scenario." Public health researchers across the U.S. are developing new lines of inquiry into the impact from wildfires...like this study at UC Davis (SOUNDBITE) (English) CLAIRE O'BRIEN, GRADUATE STUDENT IN PHARMACOLOGY AND TOXICOLOGY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA DAVIS, SAYING: "So we're looking at chicken eggs mainly from backyards from fire-affected areas, because chickens tend to scratch and peck at the ground which may be contaminated with potentially toxic ash from wildfires." Scientists, many of them funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), are also studying pregnant women who were exposed to polluted air and water after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017 And residents of Puerto Rico who were forced to live in unrepaired homes where mold and fungi grew after Hurricane Maria in 2017.

They hope the research can help them better assess the impact of today's disasters and the damage that's still being done even after they're over.

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