Cancer risks revealed

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Water in the Camp Fire burn zone has been found to be contaminated with benzene—and other chemicals—due to burned plastic pipes.

Like 90 percent of his neighbors, Doug Teeter lost his home in last November’s Camp Fire. So as the Butte County supervisor whose district includes the Ridge, he’s speaking up not only for his constituents when he advocates for things like clean water—he’s speaking for his family, too.

“Early on, when the contaminants were identified, with benzene being the marker, I did a lot of my own research through [Environmental Protection Agency] documents online,” he told the CN&R. “It can cause an increased risk of leukemia.”

Little has been done in Teeter’s opinion to ensure the health of people living in the Camp Fire burn zone, who are bathing in and in some cases drinking potentially contaminated water. He was unaware, however, of a document this newspaper obtained via the Public Records Act that suggests a significantly higher risk of cancer and other adverse health effects in the Camp Fire zone—information that has not been disclosed to the public. The Department of Drinking Water, part of the State Water Resources Control Board, was provided that information months ago. That department isn’t doing enough, overall, to protect Camp Fire zone residents’ health, Teeter asserted.

“The Board [of Supervisors] wants clean water. Public Health wants clean water. We want the Department of Drinking Water to take ownership of that,” Teeter said. “That should be their cup of tea. That’s what they do. It blows my mind that no one wants to say, ‘Yeah, we’ll take charge of that.’”

The aforementioned document was produced by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), which is part of the California Environmental Protection Agency, and provided to the water board in April. It outlines the effects of high levels of benzene—the main chemical compound being found in the water after the Camp Fire—on children and adults, based on daily exposure for one year. For example, an infant drinking water with 26 parts per billion of benzene has a 1 in 40,000 chance of developing cancer. At 1 ppb, the water board’s designated maximum level for public health, that chance is 1 in a million.

“These are estimates, but any cancer case is one too many,” said Sam Delson, deputy director of external and legislative affairs for OEHHA. “I’m a cancer survivor myself. … Our work here at OEHHA, we assess risks but we don’t manage them. [This data] informs the activities of the water board.”

The OEHHA short-term exposure data estimates risk based on 1 ppb up to 900 ppb. When asked why it stopped there, Delson said that was the highest level of contamination found—in the Paradise Irrigation District (PID); the highest within the Del Oro Water Co. to date is 46 ppb. According to another state water board document obtained by the CN&R via the Public Records Act, however, a test taken on Jan. 31 on Lancaster Drive in Paradise tested positive for 2,217 ppb of benzene. Delson said he’d have to check on that number, as he was unfamiliar with it.

“I do not know why [the water board is] not being upfront with the public about that number,” said Andrew Whelton, a national expert on large-scale water contamination who has been consulting with the PID since February. The CN&R contacted three people at the water board for comment; one replied by press time but could not speak to the questions presented.

At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting (June 11), Teeter expressed concern that the water agencies in the Camp Fire zone were operating independently and that little was being done to help homeowners determine their water’s potability. No. 1 on his list of priorities: a standard method of testing the water to ensure its safety. No. 2 is a set of guidelines for homeowners on what they should be doing.

“It’s really frustrating,” he told the CN&R. “Here we are, seven months after the fire, and we don’t have a uniform testing procedure that is peer-reviewed across the experts in the potable water field.

“And no one has taken ownership of [what happens] beyond the meter,” he added. “Homeowners need to have a procedure so they know their homes have a clean water source.”

That’s been the rallying cry for Purdue University professor Whelton since he first was asked to consult on PID’s post-fire system issues. Without a standardized method of testing, the two water purveyors in the region—PID in Paradise and Del Oro in Magalia and its environs—have been left to determine their own. PID has chosen to follow the advice of Whelton and his colleagues and is doing comprehensive testing while maintaining a do-not-drink advisory; Del Oro is conducting simpler testing and has told customers all along that its water is fine to drink.

“Del Oro has issued no advisory, even though they have contamination,” Whelton said.

In April, three tests in the Paradise Pines area came back positive for more than 1 ppb, the highest being 15.2 ppb, and in May two out of four tests in the Magalia area topped 1 ppb.

The key: a standard approach, Teeter said.

“It just casts doubt when it’s not uniform. It’s got to be a peer-reviewed testing procedure, not just a couple scientists saying, “Yeah, this is it!’”