Ashes to Dust

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Ashes to Dust
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(Photo: Mike Eliason / SBCFD)

Source: UC Santa Barbara

For more than two weeks in December, ash particles swirled like snowflakes across much of Santa Barbara County, blanketing the area in a dusting of grayish-white. N95 particulate masks became a ubiquitous sight as people donned them for respiratory protection, wondering — and worrying — just what those ashes contained.

Now scientists at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management can tell us.

A study of Thomas Fire ashes collected at 18 points in Santa Barbara, Santa Paula and Goleta reveal a significant metal content of about 20 percent, with the balance likely consisting of common elements such as carbon, silicon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and hydrogen.

“Naturally, many in the community were concerned by our exposure to the ashes and what they might contain,” said environmental biogeochemist Arturo Keller, a professor in UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “I thought to myself, ‘We can answer this question quite easily,’ and decided to start collecting ash for analysis.”

Led by postdoctoral scholar Yuxiong Huang, the UCSB researchers, including visiting scientists Anastasiia Minakova, graduate student Qian Gao and undergraduate Shogo Kono, focused on 25 elements in total, determining their concentration with a state-of-the-art Agilent instrument that can detect levels at parts-per-trillion. Most abundant were calcium, aluminum, potassium, iron, magnesium, sodium and phosphorus, which together represented 98.6 percent of the metals. Their concentrations were compared to screening risk levels (SRL) for residential soils, which assume a long-term exposure to the soils.

Because most of the ash was removed in the weeks after the fire, most people would not be exposed to these levels. Nevertheless, the SRLs are a useful benchmark. Of these seven most prevalent elements, only potassium was measured much higher than the risk level. As a common plant nutrient, its presence would be expected in residues from combustion of native vegetation. Aluminum and iron came in at 25.4 percent and 31.1 percent, respectively, of the SRL and therefore individually would not pose a risk.

The remaining elements were mostly metals. Cobalt and manganese were the most significant, although still below their SRLs. Arsenic, lead and chromium were about 10 percent or less of their SRLs.

“Although the individual levels of these metals and other elements is below the screening levels, their combined presence in the ash is of concern,” explained Keller, co-director of the UC Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology and a participating faculty member in the campus’s Chemical Life Cycle Collaborative, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. “It was very wise to have received early on the recommendation from authorities to avoid being outdoors during the fires and to use the masks to reduce the likelihood of inhalation.”

The UCSB investigators also are studying factors that affect water quality. Through collecting and analyzing freshwater and coastal water samples in the area, they will be able to develop a better understanding of the effects of the Thomas Fire and the subsequent mudslides.

“We hope to provide this very useful information to our community and the authorities to better assess any residual risks,” Keller said. His team is exploring options for emergency funding to expand its monitoring efforts and would like to work with nonprofit groups and others who can help with sample collection.

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Roger Feb 07, 2018 03:10 PM
Ashes to Dust

Gotta be a real tough guy to troll people with lung disease...

a-1545208130 Feb 07, 2018 02:52 PM
Ashes to Dust

Smoke is loaded with particulate matter. Extremely detrimental to one's health. For anyone who wants to educate themselves about PM, I propose you research the effects of PM2.5 on humans.

a-1545208130 Feb 07, 2018 08:53 AM
Ashes to Dust

RHS - ever hear of better safe than sorry? I mean really, how hard was it to put on a mask? Also, the volume of smoke was the reason many people, especially those with kids with asthma (like me) took extra precautions. Do you honestly enjoy gloating about something as unobtrusive as other people being overly concerned about their lungs?

a-1545208130 Feb 07, 2018 11:56 AM
Ashes to Dust

No one said "violent encounters are acceptable" - I merely asked what specific violence took place due to the smoke and ash. Don't get so hysterical.

a-1545208130 Feb 07, 2018 11:47 AM
Ashes to Dust

So violent encounters are acceptable based on emotion and almost no real data? This is exactly how mobs start. If one wants to stay indoors and avoid the "threat" that is one thing but if one takes it on oneself to physically impose such preferences on others without knowledge it is scary. Many knowledgeable people pointed out at the time of this "ash panic" that the amount of non-natural materials in the smoke was almost unmeasurable. This information as rejected and even ridiculed.

a-1545208130 Feb 07, 2018 10:41 AM
Ashes to Dust

What were people in your neighborhood fighting about? Wearing masks? Not using leaf-blowers to stir up ash? I don't understand what was/is so objectionable about people deciding to take care of themselves and their loved ones in any way they see fit. It's not about going with the mob, it's about seeing/feeling/breathing HUGE amounts of wildfire smoke and ash and deciding, "hey, I don't want to breathe that crap, nor do I want my kids breathing it."

RHS Feb 07, 2018 10:36 AM
Ashes to Dust

Not gloating but asking people to exercise some critical thinking when confronted with information that is suspect at best. People in my neighborhood were actually engaged in physical confrontations over this stuff. Don't you know that the media/entertainment/gossip mills love to scare us and hype everything just to get attention/ratings/re-Tweets. Go with the crowd? Go with the mob? Don't ask questions?

RHS Feb 07, 2018 08:36 AM
Ashes to Dust

So it appears that the "sky is falling" crowd was at it again? Little danger in the smoke other than the fact that no one would want to breath in large quantities of any smoke from fires anywhere. That is, this smoke was not particularly threatening.

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