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In 2018, a raging fire tore through the town of 26,000 in Paradise, California, and nearly burned the town to the ground. Flames raged for over two weeks, and 85 people lost their lives, making the Camp Fire the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire.

After the fire, officials began to find volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were contaminating the town’s water. Scientists suggest that this could be a widespread problem in other areas that are prone to fires. Research published in Chemical & Engineering News looks at how plastic pipes could be the source of dangerous contamination and explores solutions for how to protect these communities.

Source: CBS Sacramento/YouTube

Testing showed that Paradise’s water contained VOCs, including toxic levels of benzene, a carcinogen, in the drinking water systems. They said that there were so many contaminants in the water that “the chromatograph lit up like a Christmas tree.” They found other VOCs, including naphthalene, styrene, toluene, and xylenes.

At first, they did not know how to stop it, how to clean it out, or what to do to solve the issue. A team of investigators found that there were no VOCs in the treatment plants of mains, but they found them in the service lines. These service lines are smaller pipes near or above the ground that are usually made from plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE).

Although it is costly to eliminate plastic from service lines, we must create a solution. Some suggest that the pipes should be buried deeper to insulate them better and protect them from heat from the fires. Others say that we need to install sensors to detect when the pipes reach their temperature threshold for releasing VOCs.

With the planet continuing to warm, wildfires will continue to be a problem. We must begin to work towards solutions, especially for these Western states that are particularly vulnerable to fires.

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