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PHI's Gina Solomon to Study Water Contamination After Camp Fire

September 07, 2019 | Camille Von Kaenel | Oroville Mercury-Register

Read more about the study and find out if you are eligible to participate

n this Dec. 3, 2018, file photo, trees reflect in a swimming pool outside Erica Hail’s Paradise home, which burned during the Camp Fire. (Noah Berger — Associated Press file)
In this Dec. 3, 2018, file photo, trees reflect in a swimming pool outside Erica Hail’s Paradise home, which burned during the Camp Fire.
(Noah Berger — Associated Press file)

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has agreed to fund a study of possible contamination of the indoor plumbing of homes that survived the Camp Fire in Paradise and Magalia.

The federal research agency has awarded a grant worth $275,000 to Gina Solomon, a clinical professor in the division of occupational and environmental medicine at UC San Francisco, and a team from UC Davis and the Public Health Institute, for the project. The researchers plan to start collecting and analyzing samples from 10 percent of standing homes getting water from Paradise Irrigation District or Del Oro Water Company, or around 175 homes, in early October.

Volatile organic compounds that may be harmful to health, notably benzene which is linked to anemia, immune system damage and leukemia, were first found in water systems after an urban wildfire in Santa Rosa. Benzene was also detected after the Camp Fire. Though the water utilities say they now have a better understanding of the problem and are able to control it by replacing contaminated service lines, a lot remains unknown.

“There’s some mystery here, and it’s really a novel challenge that we need to fully understand in order to prevent it in the future,” said Solomon.

One of the mysteries is the source of the volatile organic compounds. One hypothesis suggests they are released from melted plastic pipes. Another points to smoke pulled in through service lines due to a loss of pressure. Soil contamination could be another source.

Researchers think that the volatile organic compounds can then be absorbed back into the walls of indoor plumbing pipes, which can become a long-term source of contamination. Under state law, water utilities are responsible for controlling contamination in their systems up to a customer’s water meter, but not inside peoples’ homes. That gap has sparked concern among residents in the Camp Fire footprint. Currently, the State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water is assisting Del Oro in testing inside some standing homes. Other residents have had to pay out of pocket to conduct their own tests for peace of mind.

“There were some urgent questions in the community and people deserved answers,” said Solomon about her desire to do the project.

Read the full article in the Oroville Mercury-Register and see additional coverage in Bloomberg News