Printed on: January 17, 2013

Officials say radiation-laced wildfire smoke posed no risk

By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON -- Air samples taken from North Fork during September's massive wildfire showed concentrations of radioactive elements many times higher than the national average, officials said, but it posed no threat to human health.

The recently released test results showed the level of airborne uranium was 10 times higher, and thorium was eight times higher, than a national average established by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.

"The concentrations we had at North Fork were definitely higher but none were harmful to humans," said Idaho Department of Environmental Quality health physicist Paul Ritter.

Ritter conducted the air sampling in September after the Mustang Complex Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest burned over former mining sites containing traces of radioactive uranium and thorium.

Several North Fork residents expressed concern about health risks caused by the possibility of radioactive elements contained in the thick smoke that blanketed the area for weeks.

Results of the DEQ's early testing in October showed heightened overall radiation levels but none that constituted a threat.

Based on the testing, North Fork-area residents would have been exposed to 0.5 millirems of radiation in a 30-day period, Ritter said. That compares with an estimated 310 millirems to which Americans are exposed every year from natural background sources, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.