CA Wildfires May be Transforming Natural Compounds into Cancer-Causing Toxins

A study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications suggests California’s wildfires may be turning benign, naturally-occurring chromium-3 into a cancer-causing form known as hexavalent chromium or chromium-6.

Researchers have identified high levels of chromium-6 at several burn sites along California’s North Coast: Sonoma County’s Pepperwood Preserve, White Rock Preserve, and Modini Preserve, as well as the Sylvia McLaughlin Natural Reserve in Lake and Napa counties. 

These four areas were impacted by the Kincade or Hennessey fires in 2019 and 2020. Thanks to previous sampling, researchers are certain the toxic compounds were not in the area before the fires.

The more benign chromium-3 is being transformed into the toxic chromium-6 through oxidation.

“…When you start heating the samples up through in this case wildfires, that causes that reaction to occur,” said the study’s lead author Scott Fendorf. “And so, you’ve transformed from the benign to the really toxic form.”

That toxic form can increase cancer risks when inhaled or ingested. Chromium-6 was the compound implicated in Hinkley, California’s groundwater contamination crisis, made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich.”

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