Retardant could be cyanide source
Concerns about a chemical in fire retardant could lead to shortages if another heavy wildland fire season occurs this year.
Don Smurthwaite, a fire information officer with the Bureau of Land Management, confirmed that the retardant has been used in Nevada.
“If (fire season) is severe, then there will be a strain on our supply,” he said. “If it is light, then we won’t have anything to worry about. All we can do is cross our fingers and hope for good weather.”
Two types of fire retardant are dropped by federal and state firefighters from air tankers in the United States.
The more common one contains the chemical sodium ferrocyanide, which is also used to keep table salt from clumping, according to Alice Forbes of the National Interagency Fire Center.
Forbes said fire agencies are halting the use of retardant containing the chemical, because of research indicating it breaks down into trace amounts of cyanide.
“It is a real stable compound,” Forbes said. “It is just in the mixture of sunlight and water that it releases cyanide.”
Forbes said that it was always policy to avoid lakes and streams with the retardant.
“Our policy is to keep it away from lakes and stream courses,” she said. “We’ve generally been pretty successful at that. But, there are occasions of drift. What we are trying to do is specifically study trout and frogs to determine its impact. We want to ensure we’re not contributing to the demise of threatened species.”
“We’re trying to find out how much has been used in Nevada,” Smurthwaite said. “We’re trying to get some sort of reasonable estimate. It has been commonly used for about 20 years by federal and state agencies.”
Smurthwaite said about 60 percent of the retardant used in the United States contains the chemical.
“We will make up the difference by increasing production and perhaps using foam,” he said.
Smurthwaite said the manufacturer makes a majority of the retardant used in the United States.
“We still have another manufacturer that provides most of our retardant,” he said. “I don’t want to cause the public to worry. We still have another supplier.”
He said this summer’s supply will depend on the severity of the fire season.
The study detailing the retardant’s effects was released by the United States Geological Survey, Columbia Environmental Research Center on March 20.
According to the study, the cyanide released while the retardant breaks down exceeds levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“All the evidence we had up until the report, did not indicate the need for changing products we have traditionally used,” Forbes said.
Last summer was the most destructive fire season in the history of the state, burning an estimated 1.6 million acres.