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Study makes concerning discovery about wildfires in Northern California: 'Widespread and dangerous'

"[It] can persist in surface soil and ash for many months after wildfires, thereby presenting a health risk."

"[It] can persist in surface soil and ash for many months after wildfires, thereby presenting a health risk."

Photo Credit: iStock

Fire is known for its ability to remove impurities from precious metals and create transformation. Unfortunately, wildfires in California have reportedly been turning one unassuming and abundant mineral into a more toxic form.

What happened?

As reported by Bloomberg, a study by Stanford University scientists, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications, found "widespread and dangerous" concentrations of chromium 6 in soil ravaged by wildfires in Northern California between 2019 and 2020.  

"Chromium 6 is the most toxic known type of chromium and is associated with a litany of significant health issues, such as skin and eye irritation, kidney and liver failure and lung cancer," Kimberly Humphrey, a fellow in climate change and human health at Harvard University, told Bloomberg.

Scientists reportedly believe the wildfires are transforming chromium 3 — a "benign" metal — into the cancer-causing mineral. This comes after Australian researchers discovered in 2019 that high temperatures changed the chemical composition of chromium 3. 

"Newly formed [chromium 6] can persist in surface soil and ash for many months after wildfires, thereby presenting a health risk to those exposed to fine soil particles or ash," Southern Cross University professor Edward Burton told Bloomberg. 

The findings also raised concerns that toxic metal particles could contaminate the air during wildfires, threatening the health of firefighters and people living downwind from the blazes. 

Why is this concerning?

Wildfires are becoming more frequent, and their range is increasing. This has been driven by the overheating of our planet due to human activities, leading to longer droughts and decreased humidity, reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, data from the National Interagency Fire Center shows "the extent of area burned by wildfires each year appears to have increased since the 1980s."

While chromium 3 is vital for the healthy functioning of human bodies, its considerable presence in our environment — and on every continent — could be turned against us if wildfires go unchecked. 

What can I do about climate-driven wildfires?

Transitioning away from dirty energy sources like gas, oil, and coal will make a significant positive impact. More than 75% of planet-warming pollution comes from the burning of these fuels, according to the UN.

Making lifestyle adjustments to reduce the use of dirty energy doesn't have to be a one-size-fits-all type of situation. 

Investing in clean energy saves major money over time, for example, and taking advantage of a community solar program can make obtaining the panels more accessible. Utilizing public transportation and walking are other ways to cut down on harmful pollution. 

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