California wildfires have become exponentially worse over the years. In 2020, wildfires burned an estimated 4.2-plus million acres and destroyed 10,488 structures in the state. So far, in 2021, more than 1.9 acres have burned, and 3,050 structures have been damaged or destroyed. As wildfire occurrences increase, scientists have started studying their impact on the water supply of homes in surrounding areas.
A recent article released by Purdue University researchers – Andrew J. Whelton, associate professor of civil, environmental and ecological engineering; Amisha Shah, assistant professor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering; and Kristofer P. Isaacson, Ph.D. student – revealed the consequences of wildfires on residences in communities such as Santa Cruz County.
Their research was prompted by the aftermath of the 2017 Tubbs Fire and the 2018 Camp Fire, when chemicals were discovered in underground water distribution networks – some at levels comparable to hazardous waste. In 2020, the same thing happened after the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, which damaged 7.5 miles of water supply lines made of polyethylene, a plastic, in northern Santa Cruz County.
The study looked at how plastic piping impacts contamination. Since plastic materials are increasingly being used in buried and building plumbing and visual examination is not always a reliable indicator of contamination risk, the findings of this research are significant.
“To determine if plastic pipes could be responsible for drinking water contamination after wildfires, [the team] exposed commonly available plastic pipes to heat. The temperatures were similar to the heat from a wildfire that radiates toward buildings but isn’t enough to cause the pipes to catch fire.[The team] tested several popular plastic drinking water pipes, including high-density polyethylene (HDPE), crosslinked polyethylene (PEX), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC).
Benzene and other chemicals were generated inside the plastic pipes just by heating. After the plastics cooled, these chemicals then leached into the water. It happened at temperatures as low as 392 degrees Fahrenheit. Fires can exceed 1,400 degrees.”
Ultimately, the research revealed how wildfires could have a volatile impact on the health of residents in surrounding communities via the water supply.
Understanding the Risks in Santa Cruz
The CZU Lightning Complex Fire burned more than 86,000 acres in both San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties. It destroyed 1,490 structures while damaging another 140. However, the impact went beyond structural damage and impacted the water lines of thousands of residences within the counties.
Benzene was found in the water, and residents faced months of uncertainty regarding its safety. Many were advised not to drink the water, while others were warned to be cautious when showering and bathing. As time went on, the warnings decreased. However, the research conducted by Whelton, Shah, and Isaacson reveals that the contamination from plastic pipes could be longer term.
“Even if a home is undamaged, we recommend testing the water in private wells and service lines if fire was on the property. If contamination is found, we recommend finding and removing the heat-damaged plastic contamination sources. Some plastics can slowly leach chemicals like benzene over time, and this could go on for months to years, depending on the scale of contamination and water use. Boiling the water doesn’t help and can release benzene into the air.”
As of early September 2021, only four fires disrupted Santa Cruz County – Freedom Fire, Panther Ridge Fire, Bonny Doon Complex Fire (previously Fanning Fire), and China Grade Fire. Although none were as horrific as what Santa Cruz experienced in 2020, the potential long-term impact of the fires on the water supply has not been thoroughly studied.
Buying Your Next Home: Assessing Water Safety
What does this mean for prospective homeowners? In many homes, plastic pipes transport drinking water from a meter to the property and from inside the property to faucets. Water meters contain plastic, and private wells often have plastic well casings, so do faucet connectors, water heater dip tubes, and refrigerator and icemaker tubing – in other words, plastic is heavily relied upon in plumbing. Therefore, prospective homeowners should conduct their due diligence when buying a residence to ensure the water supply is safe for their families.
Review Consumer Confidence Report
First, it is important to note that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors water provided by a public company. If you own a home and your water supply is contaminated, the agency monitoring your supply must notify you of the contamination. However, if you purchase a new home, you may not be privy to this information straightaway. Instead, you should use the annual Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) to research the water quality in the area and find information regarding contaminants, possible health effects, and water sources.
Order Water Testing
Unfortunately, community water suppliers provide a CCR once a year, which leaves ample time for residents to experience a contaminated water supply between testing. Therefore, prospective homeowners should have the water supply tested by a certified laboratory in California. The cost can vary depending on the number of contaminants studied. For homes near recent fires, owners should test for the toxins reported by Whelton, Shah, and Isaacson.
For those acquiring a home connected to a private well, testing before closing can offer insight into the water quality. EPA does not regulate private wells; therefore, it is the homeowner’s responsibility to manage and test the property’s water if it utilizes a private well.
The fact that fire damage can cause water contamination in residential properties outfitted with plastic pipes is disconcerting. However, the implications of plastic pipes causing water contamination extend beyond fire-prone regions such as Santa Cruz County to any structure where plastic pipes may have experienced elevated temperatures due to fire. Therefore, prospective buyers around the country should do what they can to identify potential toxins in the water supply before purchasing a new home.
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