Over three thousand brush fires have ravaged California since the beginning of the year, sending approximately 231,000 acres of land up in smoke. In Northern California, residents are complaining about bizarre, hot rashes and bumps appearing on their skin. Are these burning rashes related to the fires, and if so, how? Sacramento Metro Fire Department says the rashes have not appeared on their crew, who are working closest to the flames. Authorities believe that burnt poison oak is likely filling the air, affecting the most sensitive people in the neighborhood. Their hypothesis isn’t confirmed, because the active poison from poison oak, urushiol, has not been isolated from the residents’ burning rashes and blisters.
Reportedly, the rashes are only affecting residents in clusters in Northern California. Many of the affected residents report that the rashes feel hot, which is not indicative of poison oak, ivy, or sumac. Their rashes do not seem to be related to any kind of respiratory illness either, or else a fever and other respiratory symptoms would have developed.
One resident, Tamara Steinhoff, said, “’I just kept itching my chest and I felt really hot. Nothing had been different, so I started asking could it be something in the air with the fires or this weird smell in the area.” Steinhoff had gone for a walk and came home with the rash spreading across her body, her tongue swelling, and throat closing. The symptoms and flare-ups came on fast. Most poison oak reactions come on slowly and spread slowly for two weeks.
The residents’ symptoms seem to point to a much different cause than respiratory disease or contact with poisonous plants. Their symptoms point to acute toxicity to an airborne chemical. The toxic airborne chemical that could be causing the caustic burns and rashes is the red slurry that is dropped from aircraft to prepare for forest fire outbreaks. This red slurry, called LC95A, is a mixture of toxic fire retardant chemicals, ammonia, and nitrate. Millions of gallons of this chemical concoction are dumped over the natural environment each year. It has been used, controversially, by the Forest Service since 1950. The chemicals are a threat to several species of fish and rare plants. The chemicals are often dropped near homes and power plants before a fire reaches the area, to control the potential spread of forest fires. The Forest Service hires applicators who try to slowly and accurately apply the fire retardant mix from overhead. However, because of wind and human error, applicators cannot always guarantee accurate dispersal of the chemicals. When the toxic slurry is dropped on nearby homes, the chemicals can inadvertently fall over people and neighborhoods, causing acute chemical toxicity. No long term studies have been conducted to measure the ill effects these chemicals may have on humans living in commonly sprayed areas. (Related: Fire retardant chemical found in children at three times the level of their parents.)
Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics have legally challenged the use of these chemicals, forcing federal biologists to complete an environmental study on the harms of the red slurry. The study found that the chemicals won’t necessarily cause extinctions, but use of the chemical is degrading habitat and watersheds, negatively impacting several species of fish. The red slurry is most damaging to greenback cutthroats and the butterflies. Even though the red slurry slows the combustion rate of a wildfire, plain water can be used in its place. The Forest Service is calling on chemical manufacturers to make a less toxic formulation for future control of wildfires.
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