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Toxic Ash Means Bay Area Produce Buyers Should Get Ready to Scrub

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Local wildfires are dropping dangerous ash on crops and farm stands

A bowl of persimmons being washed in a sink... Photo by Emma Garofalo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

If concerns about foodborne illnesses or the (slight) risk of surface-spread COVID-19 weren’t enough to convince you to wash your fruits and vegetables before eating them, perhaps a new threat will finally get you scrubbing: the fine coating of ash that’s covered produce not just as it grows in California, but as it rests outside shops or on farm stands.

While ash from, say, a fireplace or a bonfire might seem relatively benign, the particulate sent into the air when wildfires consume residential areas is significantly more toxic, a U.S. Geological Survey study reveals. According to a 2007 report from the L.A. Times, the study (which was “the first major attempt to test ash and soils after California wildfires,” they say) showed that ash from fires that burn businesses and homes contain arsenic, lead, toxic metals, and “fine metallic particles,” all byproducts when materials used to construct buildings are consumed by a fire.

Exposure to these substances is “a very substantial concern” for public health, researcher Geoffrey Plumlee said at the time, and might be one of the reasons your nose, eyes, and throat feel itchy and sore this week even though a cozy fire at a ski lodge has never given you pause. It’s also why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns everyone to “avoid direct contact with ash” to minimize risk.

California farmers who spoke with ABC 7 this week noted that their crops (all picked, one should note, by farmworkers outside in toxic conditions) are all “covered in ash” even as they head to area grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and produce stands.

“A lot of the ash is mixed between trees and bushes, but also from people’s homes,” Healdsburg farmer Corey Manning tells ABC 7. His Tres Alamos Farm is currently open, shipping pumpkins, tomatoes, corn, melons, and peppers to local stores. According to Manning, “we would normally rinse everything off” before sending the vegetables to stores, but “we definitely don’t have the labor for that.”

“I would definitely wash everything that you buy,” Manning says.

Manning’s advice also applies to produce that’s already at the store, especially if you shop at a spot that displays produce outside, where ash fall is more likely. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that doesn’t mean you need to drop produce from your diet, just that you need to wash a bit more carefully.

Via email, an FDA spokesperson tells Eater SF that to avoid ash contamination, one should use the same protocols one would use to avoid any other contamination. It’s strongly suggested that people avoid produce that’s been damaged, the spokesperson says, then follow these steps:

  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce.
  • If damage or bruising occurs before eating or handling, cut away the damaged or bruised areas before preparing or eating.
  • Rinse produce BEFORE you peel it, so dirt and bacteria aren’t transferred from the knife onto the fruit or vegetable.
  • Gently rub produce while holding under plain running water. There’s no need to use soap or a produce wash.
  • Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers.
  • Dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present.
  • Remove the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage.