The cause of drinking water contamination after wildfires has baffled authorities since it was discovered in 2017.
When wildfires swept through the hills near Santa Cruz, California, in 2020, they released toxic chemicals into the water supplies of at least two communities.
A test has now confirmed a source of these chemicals, and it’s clear that wildfires aren’t the only blazes that put drinking water systems at risk.
Tests revealed volatile organic compounds had reached levels that posed immediate health risks in some areas, including benzene levels that exceeded the EPA hazardous waste threshold of 500 parts per billion. Benzene was found at a level 8,000 times the federal drinking water limit and 200 times the level that causes immediate health effects. Those effects can include dizziness, headaches, skin and throat irritation and even unconsciousness, among other risks.
Plastics are ubiquitous in drinking water systems. They are often less expensive to install than metal alternatives, which hold up against high heat but are vulnerable to corrosion.
Today, water pipes under the street and those that deliver water to customers’ water meters are increasingly made of plastic. Pipes that transport the drinking water from the meter to the building are often plastic. Water meters also sometimes contain plastics. Private wells can have plastic well casings as well as buried plastic pipes that deliver well water to plastic storage tanks and buildings.
Pipes inside buildings that carry hot and cold water to faucets can also be plastic, as can faucet connectors, water heater dip tubes, refrigerator and ice maker tubing.
To determine if plastic pipes could be responsible for drinking water contamination after wildfires, we exposed commonly available plastic pipes to heat. The temperatures were similar to the heat from a wildfire that radiates toward buildings but isn’t enough to cause the pipes to catch fire.
Benzene and other chemicals were generated inside the plastic pipes just by heating. After the plastics cooled, these chemicals then leached into the water. It happened at temperatures as low as 392 degrees Fahrenheit. Fires can exceed 1,400 degrees.
While researchers previously discovered that plastics could release benzene and other chemicals into the air during heating, this new study shows heat-damaged plastics can directly leach dozens of toxic chemicals into water.
A community can stop water contamination from spreading if damaged pipes can be quickly isolated. Without isolation, the contaminated water may move to other parts of the water system, across town or within a building, causing further contamination.
Even if a home is undamaged, testing the water in private wells and service lines is recommended if fire was on the property. If contamination is found, recommend finding and removing the heat-damaged plastic contamination sources. Some plastics can slowly leach chemicals like benzene over time, and this could go on for months to years, depending on the scale of contamination and water use. Boiling the water doesn’t help and can release benzene into the air.
Avoiding widespread contamination
Communities can take steps to avoid contaminated drinking water in the event of a fire. Water companies can install network isolation valves and backflow prevention devices, to prevent contaminated water moving from a damaged building into the utility pipe network.
Homeowners and communities rebuilding after fires now have more information about the risks as they consider whether to use plastic pipes. Some, like the town of Paradise, have chosen to rebuild with plastic and accept the risks. In 2020, the city had another wildfire scare and residents were forced to evacuate again.