Firefighters and Toxic Chemicals Study

Scientific research has shown that firefighters have an increased rate of cancer–firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general adult U.S. population. The general assumption has been that this increased risk stems from firefighters’ exposure to toxic chemicals.  But which ones?  A recent study sought to uncover which toxic chemicals firefighters are exposed to…

Study overview

Scientists asked 20 firefighters from the Durham Fire Department (DFD) to wear silicone wristbands that absorb the semi-volatile organic compounds people are exposed to while working a typical six-day shift, in order to obtain each firefighter’s baseline exposures while off duty.

Each wristband was analyzed for 134 different chemical compounds, including phthalates, brominated flame retardants, organophosphate esters, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), all of which have been linked to increased incidence of certain cancers.

Results overview

Seventy-one of these chemicals — including seven PFAS chemicals–were found in at least half of the bands.

Levels of PAH, brominated flame retardants and organophosphate esters were 0.5 to 8.5 times higher in the wristbands worn while on duty than in those worn while off duty. This suggests that just being a firefighter means people are exposed to more of these compounds than the average adult, regardless of whether they respond to a fire while working.

Bands worn by firefighters on days they actively fought a fire also contained 2.5 times more PFOS — a type of PFAS — than the bands of firefighters who were not called to a fire. This suggests that exposure to these contaminants is strongly associated with active firefighting.

In contrast, wristbands worn on off-duty days contained higher levels of phthalates and pesticides.

What is next

“Conducting follow-up research with a larger population will help pinpoint the exposure sources that contribute to firefighters’ risk for cancer and assess exposure risks that may be related to chemicals off-gassing from their gear or materials in their firehouse.”

-Jessica Levasseur, PhD student, Duke University, Nicholas School of the Environment

Journal Reference:  Jessica L. Levasseur, Kate Hoffman, Nicholas J. Herkert, Ellen Cooper, Duncan Hay, Heather M. Stapleton. Characterizing firefighter’s exposure to over 130 SVOCs using silicone wristbands: A pilot study comparing on-duty and off-duty exposures. Science of The Total Environment, 2022; 834: 155237 DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.155237