A known carcinogen is showing up in wildfire ash, and researchers are worried

A new study finds that wearing masks during the COVID pandemic—even N95 masks—may not have afforded individuals any protection against the virus [Fierce Healthcare, Feb 9, 2023]. Yet there's a new and completely unrelated reason why every American should keep a supply of N95 masks on hand ...

NPR – It’s widely known that wildfire smoke is bad for your health, but a group of researchers recently found a known carcinogen in California wildfire ash, raising concerns about just how harmful it could be to breathe the air near a blaze.

According to a study released in Nature Communications last week, researchers discovered dangerous levels of hexavalent chromium in samples of ash left behind by the Kincade and Hennessey fires in 2019 and 2020.

Workers in the manufacturing industry who’ve been exposed to elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, have higher rates of lung cancer, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Scott Fendorf, a professor at the Doerr School of Sustainability at Stanford University who worked on the study, said he was shocked by the results.

“Up until that point, if we had a wildfire, I was pretty cavalier about it, to be truthful. We get the alerts and I would still go outside and exercise, thinking exercise was the better factor for my health,” Fendorf said.

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“Now it completely changes my calculation. When we start to get wildfire or smoke warnings, I’m going to be wearing an N95 mask.”

In some affected areas, the study found that the concentration of chromium 6 was up to seven times that of unburned land.

Though the researchers only found hexavalent chromium in samples of wildfire ash and not wildfire smoke itself, Fendorf said they inferred that it was likely also present in the smoke. He said the team intends to collect samples from wildfire smoke in the future to test that hypothesis.

Still, the findings are especially alarming given that climate change is making wildfires burn larger and more frequently across the globe  …


N95 masks are getting harder to find as manufacturers cut back or close altogether in the post-pandemic world. However Amazon still has several highly rated options. 

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