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Published: Nov-2020 Public Health Voices:
California needs Statewide Policies for Drinking Water Testing after Wildfires
by Kelli Fagan Malott , PhD Candidate, Environmental Health Science

Nov-2020 Columnist: Kelli Fagan Malott  PhD Candidate, Environmental Health Science
Kelli Fagan Malott

Before I begin, I would like to express my gratitude and admiration for the Orange County Fire Authority and all of the brave men and women that battled the flames of Orange County’s most recent wildfires, the Silverado and Blue Ridge fires. Without you, this already tough year would have been made much worse for hundreds of thousands of people. Thank you…

With that being said, in the face of these wildfires, my first thought always goes to the increased particulate matter in the air we breathe. However, a recent piece in the New York Times drew my attention to a less well-known concern following wildfires, toxicants in drinking water from leaching PVC plumbing. A recent publication by Proctor et al., in AWWA Water Science focused on two recent and disastrous California wildfires, Tubbs in 2017 and Camp in 2018. Both of these wildfires are the only two to have documented finding volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in the drinking water following complaints of tinted or bad smelling water. To the credit of respective water districts for the cities and towns affected by each of these fires, “Do not drink” advisories, or other cautions were issued to residents until proper testing of drinking water could be completed. The response of each water district though was different from the other and the testing protocol for VOCs varied from test site to test site.

Following both fires several VOCs, including benzene, a known human carcinogen, were found at a plurality of sites in concentrations that far exceed the maximum contaminant levels set by the EPA. Yet, in some cases, testing was not performed until weeks or months after the fire was contained and people returned to their homes, therefore exposing these individuals to drinking water with high concentrations of these contaminants. Had no one reported the odd smell or color of the water and had the water districts not followed up with testing for VOCs, it is entirely possible that families and individuals living in these towns could have been exposed to these known human carcinogens for years, having detrimental effects on their public health. Long term occupational exposure to compounds such as benzene have been documented to increase likelihood of developing various cancers, liver fibrosis, and preterm birth. It is not enough to rely on citizens to report odd smells in their water after a fire, it is all too often this method is employed in under-funded districts and these are the exact populations that suffer. This is especially important when it comes to VOCs, as only a few will create a foul smell in the water, and only in sufficiently high concentrations. We need state-level, strategic, standardized testing and public reporting of our drinking water for VOCs following a wildfire.

At the time of this writing, California has no statewide procedure for testing drinking water following a wildfire for the presence of toxicants and carcinogens like benzene. In most cases, it seems it isn’t even performed. Even when it is performed, there is no standardized testing protocol making the data unreliable at best. We are staring down the barrel of climate change, the subsequent exponential increase in wildfires. With these current realities and the increasing populations living in urban-wildlife interfaces, it is imperative that our state officials set forth testing guidelines to test drinking waters for VOCs and other toxicants following wildfires.

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