Photo © | Kara Capaldo

The Surprising Connection Between West Coast Fires and the Volatiles Chemicals Tainting America's Drinking Water

Nov 17, 2020 at 4:15pm

Lynne Peeples,

From his back deck, Bogdan Marian can see the scars running down into the San Lorenzo Valley: the pad of a destroyed home, the scorched brown trees at the ridge line.

Marian is grateful to have a standing home. Yet his family and many others in the area still face another worry: the safety of their tap water. After fires marred the valley near Santa Cruz, California, in August, the local water district issued a “Do Not Drink Do Not Boil” notice to residents.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including benzene, residents were warned, could be seeping into the water system — just as the toxic chemicals did in Santa Rosa and Paradise, California, in the wake of wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

“I have an 18-month-old,” adds Marian. “I don’t want to expose him to anything questionable. So, we went several weeks after that using bottled water for basically everything including showering, cleaning, watering plants.”

Pervasive Chemicals

VOCs are a large group of chemicals that share an ability to vaporize in air and dissolve in water. Since the 1940s, they have been widely used in industry, agriculture and homes. They are components of gasoline, glues, degreasers, dry cleaning fluids, pesticides plastics and more. In addition to the notorious threat they pose to indoor air quality — off-gassing is common from new cabinets or laminate flooring, for example — VOCs can also find their way into the environment, tainting soil and water.

While VOCs that migrate into surface waters tend to evaporate, VOCs that travel through the soil and into groundwater can stick around and, ultimately, contaminate drinking water supplies.

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