Now under control fire at Mt Nardi is one of many fires burning throughout the Northern Rivers.
Now under control fire at Mt Nardi is one of many fires burning throughout the Northern Rivers.

LETHAL THREAT: Bushfires ignite cancerous soil

UPDATE 12pm: After a world-first discovery by Southern Cross University's Professor Ed Burton, major soils and landscape systems are being tested across the Northern Rivers for naturally occurring metal chromium 3, which has been proven to convert to toxic Chromium 6 if exposed to bushfire temperatures up to 1000 degrees.

A team of Geoscientists have collected 'control' samples of background soils from a range of areas including Lismore and Alstonville and soon Tabulam.

"We have subjected these soil samples to experimental heating scenarios in the lab which mimic bushfire conditions," Prof Burton said.

Prof Burton's team are now collecting samples of soil, ash and water from locations that have been impacted by the recent bushfires.

Mr Burton's team have confirmed that although Chromium-3 is naturally found in all soil with an average concentration of about 20 mg/kg, chromium-6 is normally absent or present at ultra-trace levels.

Attention has been focused on types of soil which may be prone to higher levels of Chromium-3 (200-400mg/kg), in areas of Lismore and Alstonville because of the red clayey soils found in these elevated areas less resistant to weathering.

Black cracking clay soils that occur on lower-lying floodplains in this region will also be sampled.

"There are also relatively large areas of land to the south of Tabulam that, because of the unique underlying geology, have extremely high amounts of chromium-3 in surface soil. These 'serpentinite-derived' soils typically contain up 5000 mg/kg chromium-3," Prof Burton said.

The initial discovery was described in a scientific paper that was published in the international journal 'Environmental Pollution' in January 2019.

"As a result of that discovery, our research team have received funding from the Australian Research Council to undertake more extensive research on this topic over the next 3 years.

"In essence, we'll be looking to understand how soil type and fire conditions affect the amount of chromium-6 which forms during bushfires, and how long the newly-formed chromium-6 persists before transforming back to chromium-3."

ORIGINAL STORY: GEOSCIENTISTS from Australia's Southern Cross University have made a world-first discovery in revealing the lethal threat of soils scorched by bushfires.

The team, led by Southern Cross University's Professor Ed Burton, has found the naturally occurring metal chromium 3 can be converted by extreme bushfire heat into the highly toxic and cancerous chromium 6.

Chromium 6 is the substance spotlighted by renowned American environmentalist Erin Brockovich, who blew the whistle on high concentrations in the water supply of her home town in southern California.

The discovery was made late last year after several years of research.

 

Professor Ed Burton of Southern Cross Geoscience is looking at the levels of a toxic element in bushfire affected soil.
Professor Ed Burton of Southern Cross Geoscience is looking at the levels of a toxic element in bushfire affected soil.

 

Professor Burton's breakthrough research has confirmed bushfire temperatures of up to 1000 degrees can endanger human health long after the flames have gone out.

"We've seen bushfires create conditions in the surface soil that transform the safe, naturally occurring chromium-3 into the toxic, cancer-causing chromium-6," Professor Burton said.

"Chromium-6 can cause lung cancer and leach into waterways."

Professor Burton, an expert on the geochemistry and mineralogy of soils, sediments and groundwater systems, said frontline firefighters are immediately at risk but the contamination of water within catchment areas posed a wider threat.

"We know that firefighters have higher incidences of chromium in their urine and are more susceptible to cancer than other groups.

Mr Burton and his team will be conducting samples at major fire grounds throughout the Northern Rivers.

"This research is trying to predict with greater accuracy the potential harm of this carcinogenic toxin and to mitigate the risk to human health by seeking to determine the reach and duration of the post-fire danger zone."

"The role of high temperatures in potential chemical contamination has been underplayed, so it's also important to learn which soils are most prone to contamination, and for how long."

While chromium 3 is a healthy nutrient in humans for insulin, sugar and lipid metabolism, its transformation into the DNA-damaging chromium 6 in bushfires was discovered when Professor Burton's team used the Australian Synchrotron particle separator in Melbourne to shine a highly-focused light - millions of times brighter than the sun - on a series of soil and mineral samples.


Rural teenagers more likely to ride with drunk drivers

premium_icon Rural teenagers more likely to ride with drunk drivers

New RACQ statistics have revealed the startling number who admitted to getting in...

Fireys’ quick response stops Cunnamulla fire

premium_icon Fireys’ quick response stops Cunnamulla fire

A grassfire close to town is believed to have been started by a campfire.

120+ PHOTOS: Country swimmers compete at largest race meet

premium_icon 120+ PHOTOS: Country swimmers compete at largest race meet

Swimmers from Warwick, Stanthorpe, Maranoa and the Western Downs