The Health Impact of the California Wildfires

In the aftermath of the Northern California wildfires, residents and local officials are calculating the toll on the region’s health. The current focus is on cleanup of the lingering ash and debris, which could be posing health risks to residents.

Government Declares Public Health Emergency Due to the Wildfires.

After the fires were contained, both the California state and the U.S. federal government declared a public health emergency because of the wildfires. Declaring this health emergency made available additional resources that can help with the recovery effort.

As the fires spread and consumed structures, homes, farms, timber and wildlife habitats, the flames also released toxic smoke into the air. According to the Sonoma County Health Department, these fires pose a more serious health risk than contained fires, like those you burn in your fireplace. That’s because these fires contained metals and harmful chemicals, and even potentially harmful asbestos. And the pressing concern is that these toxic particles are lingering and posing a health risk. Ash and particulates in the air are affecting the air people are breathing, and particles in the earth are running off into streams and reservoirs, therefore potentially affecting the safety of the area’s drinking water.

This has led the state and federal governments to issue a public health emergency, with air quality at dangerous levels in Northern California.

Cleanup of Hazardous Debris and Ash is a Priority.

The Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the Army Corps of Engineers have put a priority on the government-sponsored cleanup and are focusing on hazardous debris and ash.

Around the burned region, EPA cleanup crews, wearing protective suits, are combing the area to remove harmful hazardous household waste, which can include batteries, electronic waste like electronics and computers, asbestos fibers and insulation, flammable liquids, paints, and chemicals like ammonium and Freon.

In addition to the debris, ash is a major health concern. Because of the toxic substances the fire burned, the remaining ash still contains high levels of heavy metals like arsenic, copper, lead and zinc. The ash, too, could also contain asbestos.

Additionally, after the initial removal of hazardous debris, the crews are testing soils for toxins. If toxins are discovered in the soil, then the soil may need to be removed in addition to the chemical debris.

Health Risks Remain for Residents.

Officials are urging residents to proceed with caution as they return to their fire-damaged properties. They advise that if residents must return to affected neighborhoods, that they wear proper safety gear such as masks, gloves, rubber-soled boots, long pants and long sleeves—all to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals.

Residents should also refrain from cleaning fire debris and ash themselves, and instead call a professional hazardous material cleanup company to do it safely. In the meantime, residents should use air purifying masks to protect themselves during cleanup.

“Monumental” Recovery Remains Ahead.

The California Emergency Services Board called this undertaking “monumental,” and said that it is a historic level cleanup that will have to include large regions of Northern California. And it will take time: the state has estimated that the cleanup will continue through the Spring of 2018.

In the meantime, officials are urging residents to proceed with caution as they return home, and to contact your local health department immediately if you suspect hazardous chemicals or toxins on your property.

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