The highly oxidizing environment of a wildfire has the potential to convert any chromium present in the soil or in residential or industrial debris to its more toxic form, hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen. In addition, the highly basic conditions resulting from the combustion of wood and wood products could result in the stabilization of any aqueous hexavalent chromium formed.
Samples were collected from the October 2007 wildfires in Southern California and subjected to an array of test procedures to evaluate the potential effects of fire-impacted soils and ashes on human and environmental health. Soil and ash samples were leached using de-ionized water to simulate conditions resulting from rainfall on fire-impacted areas. The resulting leachates were of high pH (10-13) and many, particularly those of ash from burned residential areas, contained elevated total chromium as much as 33 micrograms per liter. Samples were also leached using a near-neutral pH simulated lung fluid to model potential chemical interactions of inhaled particles with fluids lining the respiratory tract.
High Performance Liquid Chromatography coupled to Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry was used to separate and detect individual species (for example, Cr+3, Cr+6, As+3, As+5, Se+4, and Se+6). These procedures were used to determine the form of the chromium present in the de-ionized water and simulated lung fluid leachates.
The results show that in the de-ionized water leachate, all of the chromium present is in the form of Cr+6, and the resulting high pH tends to stabilize Cr+6 from reduction to Cr+3. Analysis of the simulated lung fluid leachates indicates that the predominant form of chromium present in the near-neutral pH of lung fluid would be Cr+6, which is of concern due to the high possibility of inhalation of the small ash and soil particulates, particularly by fire or restoration crews.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Release of Hexavalent Chromium by Ash and Soils in Wildfire-Impacted Areas