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Scientists make concerning discovery in the aftermath of recent wildfires: 'You're getting more exposure'

"Wildfires are more frequent because of climate change, and the severity of the fires are greater."

“Wildfires are more frequent because of climate change, and the severity of the fires are greater.”

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Wildfires in California have been increasing at a growing rate since 1980, largely as a result of the effects on the climate caused by pollution. While these fires have caused widespread destruction, loss of life and property, and worsening air quality, new research indicates that they have unleashed a hidden danger as well: cancer-causing metals in the soil.

What is happening?

According to scientists in Northern California who tested soil samples after a recent wildfire, the soil was laden with a cancer-causing metal called hexavalent chromium. 

Hexavalent chromium is usually produced by an industrial process and the people most at risk of it include welders, people who work with pigments, spray paints, and coatings, and people who operate chrome plating baths. However, Californian scientists believe that the intense heat from the wildfires transformed a benign version of the metal that existed in the soil into a highly toxic version.

Why is this concerning?

Even worse, the metal could be making its way into toxic smoke from wildfires, spreading far and wide and winding up in people's lungs.

"I think it changes our risk analysis when you think about exposure to wildfire smoke," Scott Fendorf, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University and one of the authors of the study, told NBC.  

"Wildfires are more frequent because of climate change, and the severity of the fires are greater," Fendorf went on to say. "You're getting more exposure, and you're getting exposure to materials that are going to be more toxic." 

What is being done about it?

This is a very disturbing development, especially as extreme weather events such as wildfires become more frequent and more intense, thanks to changing weather patterns caused by pollution, largely from the dirty energy industry.

California has passed laws recently attempting to hold polluting companies accountable for the damage they cause to the environment — and new studies like this one, which show that wildfires may be even more harmful than previously thought, display just how important it is to have that type of legislation.

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