Firefighters Exposed to More Potentially Harmful Chemicals than Previously Thought

On-duty firefighters have an increased risk of experiencing exposure to PAHs, which are a family of chemicals known for their potential to cause cancer.

A study led by Oregon State University found that firefighters might be exposed to more harmful chemicals than previously thought while on-duty as compared to off-duty. 

The on-duty firefighters of the Kansas City, Missouri area experienced higher exposures of polycuclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are a family of chemicals known to have the potential to cause cancer. The firefighters were also exposed to 18 PAHs that have not been previously reported as firefighting exposures in earlier research. 

The results of the study are important, according to a news release, because previous studies have shown that firefighters have an increased risk of developing cancer and other damaging health effects, but did not specifically say what they could be exposed to that is causing the health problems.

“We don’t have enough data to profile the source of the PAHs, but we know PAHs appear from combustion, and obviously combustion is their work,” study lead Kim Anderson, an environmental chemist and Extension specialist at OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences, said. “They are also putting on a heavy load of protective gear that has PAHs, and they use cleaning products that have PAHs.”

PAHs are a large group of chemical compounds that contain carbon and other elements. They form naturally after almost any type of combustion, both natural and human-created. In addition to burning wood, plants and tobacco, PAHs are also in fossil fuels.

The firefighters in the study wore personal passive samplers in the shape of a military-style dog tag made of silicone on an elastic necklace. The tags are made of the same material as OSU’s patented silicone wristbands that Anderson’s lab has been using for several years to study chemical exposure in humans and cats.

This study demonstrates that the dog tags, which absorb chemicals from the air and skin, appear to be a reliable sampling technology necessary for assessing chemical exposures in firefighters, Anderson said.

“I’m quite confident those exposures existed but if you don’t have something to help you find them you don’t know for sure,” Anderson said. “Certainly, we found that it’s a lot more than what people had thought.”

To learn more about this study and the health risks associated with firefighters, see the full study.

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