Since October of 2017, Petaluma Bounty has partnered with UC Cooperative Extension of Sonoma County, local experts in Environmental Health, and other crucial community partners to conduct a Civic Science Research project on the impact of the fires on local produce. Not a typical project in our wheelhouse, but the events that occurred during those terrible weeks were anything but typical.
Within days, Bounty went into overdrive collecting produce from local farms and distributing to those impacted by the fires. A niche that we found ourselves in was providing produce to hurriedly constructed shelters, families who had accepted other families into their homes but couldn’t afford to feed all they were housing, and those who didn’t feel comfortable seeking shelter or aid from larger operations. We also supplemented food for community members whose regular deliveries from other agencies were temporarily disrupted. (See past Bounty posts here and here on the actions that we took to support our community, convene and reflect on lessons learned from the Emergency Food Response).
Concurrently, I (Suzi Grady) started to field inquiries about concerns of potential risks to the safety of local produce, given the extremely poor air quality and layer of ash that fell on, well, everything. I reached out to contacts at UC Cooperative Extension and they confirmed that they too had received questions about the fire’s impact on local food quality and that there was a dearth of research or recommendations to refer people to. At the time, urban wildfires were considered an anomaly with little framework to rely upon.
A few weeks into the fires, I invited two colleagues to lunch with overlapping concerns and interests on this topic. Vanessa Raditz (who worked with the Bounty on the PLAY program) and Mimi Enright from UC Cooperative Extension of Sonoma County quickly started to draw up plans to undertake a Citizens Science Project. Also known as a Civic Science or Community Science initiative, multiple stakeholder groups are engaged in various phases of research.
Vanessa recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a Masters in Public Health and had done research in plant uptake of industrial chemicals. Mimi coordinates the Master Gardener Program in Sonoma County and we work together on a variety of food system projects. Julia Van Soelen-Kim, the UC Cooperative Extension Food Systems Advisor for the North Bay was brought onto the team and we started on an investigative journey that took each of us into new territory that was daunting, exciting and profound. Rob Bennaton, UC Cooperative Extention Bay Area Urban Agriculture Advisor was a late and needed addition to the team, providing soil science expertise, especially in urban environments.
Borrowing from the great graphic design skills of Vanessa, I will insert the visuals of the Study Methods and Timeline from a recent presentation instead of trying to describe them in my own words.
Thanks to funding from the Bay Area Air Quality District, UC ANR Opportunity Grant, and a crowding funding campaign, we were able to fund all three phases of this unique and crucial project. This Saturday, April 27th we will be hosting the first public workshop in conjunction with a backyard egg study by UC Davis Cooperative Extension Poultry Specialist Dr. Maurice Pitesky to present the cumulative risk assessment and final report.
The workshop will provide an opportunity for investigators to present data, provide context and ensure people feel confident applying the information and recommendations to their specific situation. For those who are unable to join us on April 27th, see below for additional ways to keep in touch with the study team.
Although all sites within the study are confidential, it is up to each site to decide if they want to remain anonymous. For the benefit of all interested, Petaluma Bounty is willing to share the results of the comprehensive tests done with samples of our soil. Click here to download the complete site report.
In conclusion, the results of the study are complex and best understood in the context of the cumulative risk assessment that will be presented during a series of workshops. For those unable to attend, the summary points of the produce safety after wildfire study are below.
- Chemicals from smoke were deposited throughout our environment, including on produce and soil. Our study looks at whether produce safety was impacted by the fire
- Results confirmed our hypothesis that produce safety was not significantly affected by the fire. Our cumulative analysis further suggests that eating trace contaminants on produce does not provide a significant chemical exposure during an urban wildfire event, and the potential cancer risk is outweighed by the cancer risk reduction from the nutritional value of eating produce.
- Each fire event is unique and depends on local conditions including surrounding and historical land use. The pool of data on urban wildfires is small but growing, sadly. It is our hope that by documenting our approach and methods, other communities can replicate the process so we all can learn from each other and build shared capacity.