Metal toxin threat in wildland fires determined by geology and fire severity


Alandra Marie Lopez, Juan Lezama Pacheco, and Scott Fendorf

Fecha de publicación:
December 2023

Accentuated by climate change, catastrophic wildfires are a growing, distributed global public health risk from inhalation of smoke and dust. Underrecognized, however, are the health threats arising from fire-altered toxic metals natural to soils and plants. Here, we demonstrate that high temperatures during California wildfires catalyzed widespread transformation of chromium to its carcinogenic form in soil and ash, as hexavalent chromium, particularly in areas with metal-rich geologies (e.g., serpentinite). In wildfire ash, we observed dangerous levels (327-13,100 μg kg−1) of reactive hexavalent chromium in wind-dispersible particulates. Relatively dry post-fire weather contributed to the persistence of elevated hexavalent chromium in surficial soil layers for up to ten months post-fire. The geographic distribution of metal-rich soils and fire incidents illustrate the broad global threat of wildfire smoke and dust-born metals to populations. Our findings provide new insights into why wildfire smoke exposure appears to be more hazardous to humans than pollution from other sources.

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Lopez, A. M., J. L. Pacheco, and S. Fendorf. 2023. Metal toxin threat in wildland fires determined by geology and fire severity. Nature Communications 14:8007.