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The full effects of a deadly wildfire can be felt decades later

In November, wildfires devastated large parts of California. Widely covered by both local and national media, we know that the town of Paradise, California, experienced the most damage. The morning that the fire started, the town of approximately 26,000 people began about their day. With little to no warning, the town, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, became overwhelmed with smoke and fire. Although the town had practiced and prepared for an event such as this, many lives were lost and the town was destroyed.

In Paradise, and the surrounding area where the fire burned, 85 people perished. Although extinguished, the fire continues to pose health hazards.

When buildings burn, so do toxic substances

While consuming nearly 14,000 homes and businesses and over 150,000 acres of land, the fire destabilized toxins frequently found in building construction.

Examples of toxins include:

  • Radioactive isotopes from cookware
  • Flame retardants
  • Burned household cleaners
  • Asbestos, in many household forms
  • Lead paint

In the wake of a fire, the chemical cleanup can be tedious, time-consuming, expensive, and sometimes, superficial. After removing toxic debris, cleanup crews must test the soil for toxins that, if not removed, would undoubtedly continue to wreak havoc.

Why is this a problem?

As you may know, there was a ban on many forms of asbestos in 1978 after researchers identified asbestos as a known carcinogen. Asbestos was heavily used from the 1930s to the late 1970s because of its extraordinary insulating and heat-resisting properties. Many homes built, or renovated during those years still contain asbestos today.

Undisturbed, asbestos poses no health risks. When disturbed, however, such as during a fire, or during renovations, microscopic fibers enter the airway and make a home in respiratory tissue. After decades of agitation, the tissue can become overwhelmed by a rare form of cancer called mesothelioma.

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