As wildfire smoke and ash linger, are garden vegetables safe to eat?

CORVALLIS – Fruits and vegetables in the garden that have been showered with ash from wildfires should be safe to consume, according to Oregon State University Extension Service experts.

Rinsing the produce outside and then again in the kitchen sink will help remove ash and the particulates that accompany it, according to Brooke Edmunds, associate professor and Extension community horticulturist in the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences.

Ash and smoke are unlikely to penetrate fruit and vegetables, Edmunds said. However, safety becomes more of an issue the closer you are to a fire. Note how much ash collected on your produce and the health of your plant to make a determination

“Use your best judgment,” Edmunds said. “If your garden has a heavy layer of ash or is located near a structure that burned, the risk is higher. Burning buildings contain different toxins than a forest.”

In addition to rinsing, Edmunds advised peeling produce like tomatoes, apples and root crops and stripping the outer leaves of lettuces and other greens. For a more thorough cleaning, soak vegetables and fruits in a 10% white vinegar solution (one teaspoon vinegar to three cups water), which can lift soil particles off vegetables like kale, Swiss chard, savoy cabbage and fruit like peaches, apricots and nectarines.

Avoid going outside to harvest while smoke lingers, Edmunds said. When air quality improves, wear a mask (an N95 is best, but if you can’t find one due to the shortage, wear a cloth one with a filter) to help filter any residual ash. You can find the latest air quality information at AirNow. Avoid tracking ash into your house on shoes by removing them outside. Clothes can also carry smoke and ash into the home, so change and launder them as soon as coming inside. And don’t forget to wash your hands.

Food inside your home

If fire comes close to your home, think about taking additional precautions with food said Lynette Black, associate professor in the Department of Public Health and Human Sciences. Smoke, fumes and heat affect food even if the home seems well sealed. Smoke can enter through the smallest openings, including around windows and doors.

In those conditions, Black recommends replacing:

  • Food stored at room temperature like potatoes, fresh fruit and vegetables and dried fruit in open containers in cabinets and on shelves.
  • Food such as meats and dairy products in refrigerators and freezers that have been contaminated – fumes can enter through seals that may not be airtight. If food has an off-flavor or odor when it’s prepared, toss it. Always err on the side of caution.
  • Food packaged in cans or jars that have been exposed to temperatures over 95 degrees.
  • Cans that are split or ruptured or have visible signs of damage.

Food in metal cans that are commercially sealed, undamaged, unopened, waterproof and airtight can be considered safe once they’re disinfected. First scrub the can with detergent and then submerge it into a mixture of chlorine bleach and water.

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