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.

The search to uncover toxic danger on our firegrounds

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.

The project, based at Southern Cross University, will receive $390,000 in funding over the next three years from the Australian Research Council.

Professor Ed Burton said he will be recruiting two PhD students as part of the project, and employing a postdoctoral fellow to work on the project.

"The project actually involves the collaboration of a number of world-class researchers who will contribute to specific aspects of the research effort," he said.

Researchers include Prof Scott Johnston and Dr Renaud Joannes-Boyau from Southern Cross University, world leaders in landscape hydrogeochemistry and microanalytical tools for isotopes.

"The project will also build on our well established collaboration with scientists, such as Dr Peter Kappen, at the Australian Synchrotron - which provides access to highly sophisticated techniques that allow us to directly measure chromium-6 in soil samples," he said.

The project also involves collaboration with Prof Scott Fendorf - a leading authority on chromium behaviour in soil - who is based at Stanford University in the USA.

"We won't all be working together in the labs at SCU - although the project does require a large amount of analyses that will be done in our Lismore labs."

In addition to lab work, the team will work together in the field, collecting soil and water samples from across northern NSW and down the east coast of Australia.

"We also plan to conduct some field work in fire-impacted areas in northern California."

Other members of the team will conduct analyses at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne.

The findings of Prof Burton's research concern the long term health benefits of firefighters exposed to Chromium-6 long after the flames have gone out.

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

Two credible scientific research papers reported significantly higher amounts of chromium in firefighters urinary tests compared to other groups.

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

Prof Burton confirms that after being converted to Chromium-6, the metal does transform back to healthy nutrient chromium-3, however the period of toxicity is unknown.

"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".

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