The drinking water in Paradise, California, where 85 people died last year in the nation's worst wildfire in a century, is contaminated with the cancer-causing chemical benzene, officials said.
Officials said they believe the contamination happened after the November firestorm created a toxic combination of gases in burning homes that got sucked into the water pipes as residents and firefighters drew water heavily, the Sacramento Bee newspaper reported Thursday.
Officials say that may explain why benzene, which has been linked to anemia and leukemia, has been found in tests at various spots rather than from one source in Paradise, which was largely destroyed.
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The chemical occurs naturally in fire; is part of crude oil, gasoline and cigarette smoke; and is used to make plastics, synthetic fibers and other products, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Melted plastic meters and plastic pipes also may have sent benzene into the system, water officials say.
Paradise Irrigation District officials say they have taken about 500 water samples around town, and they have found benzene 30 percent of the time.
"It is jaw-dropping," said Dan Newton of the state Water Resources Control Board. "This is such a huge scale. None of us were prepared for this."
Those who have assessed the problem say the water district may be able to clean pipes to some homes later this year, but it will take two years and up to $300 million before all hillside residents can safely drink, cook or bathe in the water.
About 1,500 of the town's 27,000 residents are living in the few surviving houses. Water officials have warned them not to drink, cook, bathe or brush their teeth with tap water and to only take quick showers with warm water. Those residents are living on bottled water deliver daily and water tank deliveries.
Norman Stein, 84, drives 15 minutes each week to the water distribution center, loads his trunk with bottles and stacks them in his garage.
He and his wife, Darlene, disagree on the risk posed by their tap water in Paradise. She opened the sink tap to show how clear the water is.
"I could feel an oily substance before. But it's cleared up now," she said. "This is good water."
"Only it's got benzene in it," her husband retorted. "I won't even brush my teeth in that stuff."
Stein is thinking about buying a purifying system, which some of his friends have done. But water officials have said that they don't know how well in-home filters protect residents if there is benzene in their taps.
Water experts said what happened in Paradise has been detected only once before — during a deadly fire in Santa Rosa last year. They say California must work to ensure the water is safe in Paradise and learn what could protect drinking water in future wildfires.
"This is really just the beginning here," said Jackson Webster, a Chico State University professor and environmental engineer specializing in the effects of wildfire on water quality. "The fires in Santa Rosa caught people by surprise. Now, it has happened twice. The bells are ringing."