Santa Rosa, California, city officials say their “top priority” is finding the source of benzene that is poisoning the water supply in the Fountaingrove neighborhood after wildfires swept through the area and destroyed hundreds of homes.
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports that the city’s water authorities have spent several weeks working with regulators and experts to understand why benzene, a toxic hydrocarbon commonly found in fossil fuels and plastics, is contaminating the water supply.
According to the Press Democrat, those trying to understand the problem suspect that the heat of the wildfires, which destroyed about 3,000 homes in the city in the fall could have melted infrastructure such as plastic water pipes, meters, and other parts of the water delivery system.
Benzene, a known human carcinogen, could be leeching into the water supply from the damaged system, some experts believe.
Dozens of water tests have confirmed the presence of benzene in varying levels throughout the Fountaingrove neighborhood, but instead of providing answers, the tests so far have only deepened the mystery.
Initial tests showed only “slightly elevated” benzene contamination levels, but higher concentrations are being found throughout the neighborhood as the city expands its water sampling.
According to the Press Democrat, California water regulations limit the amount of benzene in drinking water to 1 part per billion. But some of the more recent test results in the area have returned with levels as high as 918 parts per billion.”
Eighty-seven water tests conducted since Dec. 12 have confirmed that benzene is present in the water at levels higher than the state’s maximum contaminant level. Four tests found more than 500 parts per billion; three found benzene levels between 100 and 500 parts; 13 tests showed levels between 25 and 100; 28 between 5 and 25 parts, and 39 tests showed levels between 1 and 5 parts.
Strangely, dozens more tests detected levels below 1 or nothing at all.
One local lawyer told the Press Democrat that if damaged water utility components are to blame for the benzene, then why aren’t all parts of the fire-damaged city having the same contamination problems. He wonders whether different building materials were used in the contaminated areas.
In any case, the city has a long and costly road ahead in restoring its water supply to a clean and healthy state.
Affected residents have been warned to not use the water for most purposes, including drinking, cooking, and brushing teeth. The city has also warned them not to boil the water or try to treat it in any way. Anyone who uses the water for bathing should take brief lukewarm showers only to limit benzene exposure and baths and hot tubs should be avoided.