Lingering Health Risks from Marshall Fire: Research Sheds Light on Boulder County Homes

Recent research conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder has revealed potential health hazards in Boulder County homes that persisted for weeks after the devastating Marshall Fire in late 2021. The study, led by CU Boulder researchers, focused on homes that survived the blaze but were exposed to smoke and analyzed the presence of harmful chemicals in dust particles.

During late January and early February 2022, engineers and chemists meticulously collected samples of airborne dust and surface particles from homes within the fire-affected zone. Analysis of the dust samples uncovered elevated concentrations of potentially harmful substances, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), recognized as carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

While the researchers cannot definitively determine the health risks posed by these particles to residents, they hope that their findings will assist future wildfire survivors in making informed decisions about returning to their homes.

Jonathan Silberstein, a doctoral student at CU Boulder, expressed the importance of this research for preparing communities facing similar situations in the future, stating, “This is going to happen again, unfortunately… We hope this research will help inform best practices for recovering after the next fire.”

The study conducted by CU Boulder is part of a broader effort to understand the long-lasting effects of the Marshall Fire. In addition to analyzing dust particles, the research team is also investigating the potential health risks associated with toxic gases that might have infiltrated homes during the fire.

Christine Wiedinmyer, an air quality scientist at CU Boulder and a co-author of the study, personally experienced the fire’s impact. Evacuated from her home in the Rock Creek area of Boulder County, she returned to find her house still standing but marked by the presence of black dust and a distinct campfire smell. Wiedinmyer’s firsthand experience motivated her to collaborate with the research team to address the concerns of her neighbors and the community.

To better understand the impact on surviving homes, the research team conducted a comprehensive study. Visiting multiple homes within the burn area, spanning over 6,000 acres in Superior, Louisville, and unincorporated Boulder County, they selected four houses, including Wiedinmyer’s, for in-depth analysis. Dust samples were collected from windowsills, and monitors were installed to track minute-by-minute changes in airborne particle levels.

The team’s findings provide a detailed understanding of the aftermath faced by homes that survive such fires. While the ash particles from the fire settled relatively quickly, the dust on windowsills proved persistent and susceptible to resuspension during cleaning activities. The researchers observed that concentrations of particles in the air almost doubled during cleaning sessions. Overnight, the team noted frequent spikes in airborne particles, likely attributed to the home’s HVAC system turning on and off.

Jonathan Silberstein emphasized that dust resuspension during activities like cleaning could lead to the highest health risks if the dust contains harmful compounds. Although the dust samples from the burn zone showed higher levels of contaminants such as PAHs and heavy metals compared to homes outside the area, they remained within typical ranges found in many urban regions in the United States.

As a cautionary measure, the researchers recommend wearing masks during post-fire cleanup to minimize the inhalation of potentially harmful dust.

While this study represents an initial step toward understanding the impact of wildfires on nearby homes, further research is necessary. Christine Wiedinmyer expressed frustration at the lack of concrete guidance for her neighbors and stressed the importance of thorough cleaning procedures and caution to ensure the well-being of individuals affected by future fires.

The CU Boulder research team‘s commitment to addressing community concerns following the Marshall Fire showcases the tangible impact of scientific knowledge in assisting communities during times of crisis.

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