Female Firefighters’ Battle Against Occupational Cancer

Female Firefighters’ Battle Against Occupational Cancer

In recent years, many women firefighters have raised concerns that their job may be putting them at higher risk of breast cancer. Recent studies show this very well could be the case.

The San Francisco Fire Department has more female firefighters than any other urban fire department in the country. Women make up about 15 percent of the San Francisco fire force compared to 5 percent nationwide. This is, in part, due to a 1980s litigation and consent decree that encouraged the department to hire more women and people of color.

While an increase in diversity within the industry is a good thing, these women are facing an issue that many men in the force do not: a heightened risk of breast cancer. The San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation (SFFCPF) noticed an alarming trend in 2012 when five female firefighters were diagnosed with breast cancer in that year alone.

San Francisco women firefighters are exposed to higher levels of certain toxic PFAS chemicals than women working in San Francisco offices, according to a new study by the University of California, Berkeley, the University of California, San Francisco, and Silent Spring Institute.

As a Berkeley News article explains, Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used in grease- and water-resistant coatings and can be found in fabrics, furniture and food packaging, but also notable in firefighting foam and turnout gear. These “forever chemicals” won’t easily break down in the environment or our bodies, and they have been linked to a number of cancers and interfere with immune function, endocrine function and breast development.

The study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology is one of the first published results from Women Firefighter Biomonitoring Collaborative—a long-term investigation into the chemical exposures that women firefighters faces. Partners in the study include the United Fire Service Women, the San Francisco Cancer Prevention Foundation, Commonweal and Breast Cancer Prevention Partners.

“Women firefighters actually raised concern about what they have perceived as elevated rates of breast cancer among their cohort in San Francisco,” said Jessica Trowbridge, a graduate student at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper. “As a team, we decided to conduct an exposure study looking at chemicals that are potential breast carcinogens.”

This is one of the first PFAS studies that is focused on women in particular. Documenting the risks faced specifically by women firefighters is important to ensure industry equality to all and making sure the industry knows how to mitigate risks and protect its employees—regardless of sex.

“This is the first study, to our knowledge, that’s been done on women firefighters,” said Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of public health and of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley and senior author of the paper. “The idea of characterizing women’s workplace exposures is something that few people are paying any attention to, and here, we are using the newest available technologies to start to do that.”

Since heightened concern for cancer risk among female firefighters over the years, many female firefighters have begun to see cancer as not just a disease, but a disease that is largely caused by their job.

“We started asking questions, wondering what was up,” said Lt. Heather Buren, co-author of the paper. “Cancer wasn’t new to our profession, but for the first time, I was thinking about cancer as an occupational disease: Was fighting fire somehow a contributing factor in my friends getting sick? Were our repeated exposures to toxic burning chemicals on the fire ground a factor to the high breast cancer rates among SFFD women firefighters?”

Since the beginning of the study, Buren and a small group of other women firefighters have teamed up with the Bluegreen Alliance to create a training program to help other firefighters lessen their exposure to PFAS and other toxic chemicals. These steps include basic measures like immediately wiping down exposed areas of skin and removing and cleaning turnout gear (a firefighter’s coat, boots and helmet) after an incident.

“There’s also a lot of interest in having firefighters use foams that don’t contain PFAS, not just to protect the firefighters, but also because the PFAS foams have contaminated a lot of groundwater and drinking water across the U.S.,” said study co-author Ruthann Rudel, research director at Silent Spring Institute.

However, many manufacturers do not disclose the ingredients used in firefighting foam. The project GreenScreen has recently launched a certification program to call for identification of PFAS-free foams, Rudel said.

The study took compared data from female firefighters in the San Francisco Fire Department to women working in downtown San Francisco offices. In order to tease out possible sources of PFAS exposure, researchers collected blood samples from 86 female firefighters and 84 office-working females; conducted hour-long interviews with each participant; and asked about workplace activities, eating habits, and consumer product use.

Of the 12 types of PFAS chemicals the researchers tested for, seven were found in detectable amounts in most participants’ blood samples, and four were found at detectable amounts in all participants’ samples. There were three of the seven that were found at significantly higher amounts in firefighters’ blood compared to office workers’ blood: PFHxS, PFUnDA, and PFNA.

Each participant received a digital report generated by Silent Spring that detailed their individual results and provided them with information and concrete steps for reducing their PFAS exposure.

A companion paper that also appeared online in Environmental Science and Technology included a detailed method that will allow researchers to rapidly screen blood samples for the presence of a variety of different toxic compounds. This method could help identify what other toxins women firefighters are exposed to. A future study undergoing preparation plans to report on the levels of flame-retardants in the blood samples of the women firefighters and office workers.

“We are here, and our health is important,” Buren said. “In many occupations, women are often overlooked and understudied. Firefighting is no different. The SFFD has more women firefighters than any other metropolitan fire department in the U.S. The strength in numbers, coupled with the continued and strong support from our administration and union, has allowed us to focus on the health of our women, which we hope will benefit all firefighters nationally.”

For more information on the research and images from the San Francisco Fire Department, read Berkeley News’ article.

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