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The link between wildfires and drinking water contamination

wildfire water

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After a devastating 2018 wildfire that swept through Paradise, California, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were found to contaminate the city’s water — and scientists suggest this problem may be rife in other fire-prone areas. An editorial in Chemical & Engineering News, an independent news outlet of the American Chemical Society, examines how plastic pipes can be a major source of contamination and examines what can be done to protect vulnerable communities.

Tests showed that Paradise’s water contained VOCs (including benzene, naphthalene and toluene) in levels exceeding US Environmental Protection Agency standards, writes freelance worker Robin Meadows. A team investigating the water contamination found no VOCs in the treatment plants or pipes, but they did in the service pipes, which are smaller pipes near or above ground, usually made of plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE). † The researchers also found evidence that PVC and HDPE begin to break down at high temperatures and generate VOCs, but they don’t have to burn to do so. Another study identified the VOCs in Paradise’s water and compared them to VOCs emitted from burned pipes and to other sources, such as building materials. Their results suggest that the water sample was contaminated by a combination of plastic pipes and smoke.

While removing plastic from service lines is impractical and costly, experts say some changes could help protect communities from their risks, such as burying them deeper to insulate them from the heat produced by fires. A network of valves can help prevent contaminants from spreading through the water system in the event of a fire. In the future, sensors may be able to detect when pipes reach the threshold temperature for VOC release. In addition to installing engineering systems, other strategies include managing vegetation, reducing building flammability, and assessing individual community vulnerabilities. And after wildfires, water companies must act quickly to test for contaminants in the water from burned homes and service pipes, experts say.

Plastic pipes pollute drinking water systems after wildfires, increase the risk of city fires

More information:
The article is available at: https://cenm.ag/water-wildfires

Provided by American Chemical Society

Quote: The link between wildfires and drinking water pollution (2022, June 9) Retrieved June 9, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-link-wildfires-contamination.html

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