The link between wildfires and drinking water contamination

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Following a devastating 2018 wildfire that raged through Paradise, California, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were found to contaminate the city’s water – and scientists suggest the problem could be widespread in other fire-prone areas. A feature article in Chemical & Engineering News, an independent media outlet of the American Chemical Society, examines how plastic pipes can be a key source of contamination and explores what can be done to protect vulnerable communities.

Tests found Paradise water contained VOCs (including benzene, naphthalene and toluene, among others) at levels exceeding US Environmental Protection Agency standards, writes the independent contributor Robin Meadows. A team investigating water contamination did not find VOCs in treatment plants or pipes, but detected them in service lines, which are smaller pipes near or above ground typically made of plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and high density polyethylene (HDPE). The researchers also found evidence that PVC and HDPE begin to degrade and generate VOCs at high temperatures, but don’t need to burn off to do so. Another study identified VOCs in Paradise water and compared them to VOCs emitted from burnt pipes and other sources such as building materials. Their results suggest that the water sample was contaminated with a combination of plastic pipes and smoke.

While it’s impractical and expensive to eliminate plastic from service lines, experts say certain changes can help protect communities from their risks, such as burying them deeper to insulate them from the heat produced by fires. . A network of isolation 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 releasing VOCs. Beyond installing engineered systems, other strategies include managing vegetation, reducing building flammability, and assessing each community’s vulnerabilities. And after wildfires, water utility companies should act quickly to test for contaminants in water from burned homes and service lines, experts say.

Plastic pipes pollute drinking water systems after forest fires and increase the risk of urban fires

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