Levels of potentially health-threatening PFAS chemicals rise with years of service.
Volunteer firefighters — who comprise more than 65% of the U.S. fire service — have higher levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), “forever chemicals,” in their bodies than the general public, according to research by Rutgers University.
The study compared the levels of nine PFAS chemicals in the blood of volunteer firefighters against levels in the general population. It was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
It is the first study to evaluate volunteer firefighters’ exposure to PFAS, chemicals that accumulate in human bodies and in the environment and are found in everyday items like carpeting, electronics, and non-stick cookware. PFAS have been associated with numerous health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, that impact firefighters. Increasing evidence has linked these “forever chemicals” to cancer.
“The primary cause of line-of-duty death among firefighters are heart attacks. They also get and die from many types of cancer more often than other people,” said lead author Judith Graber, an associate professor at Rutgers School of Public Health and a faculty member at the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute. “More than 95% of the U.S. population have these chemicals to some degree in their bodies, but firefighters have heightened exposure to PFAS through their protective gear and fire suppression foam and the burning materials they encounter that release particles, which can be inhaled or settle on gear and skin.”
The study surveyed 135 members of a volunteer fire department in New Jersey on their lifestyle and cancer risk factors and compared traces of nine PFAS chemicals in their blood against the levels recorded in the general population in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which tracks the health status of a nationally representative sample of 5,000 people annually. Although there are more than 4,000 PFAS chemicals, the study looked at the nine chemicals that the CDC has tracked the longest and are most often seen in the general population.
The researchers found that the levels of two of the chemicals studied — perfluorododecanoic acid (PFDoA) and perfluorodecanoic acid (PFDA) — were higher in volunteer firefighters. “Notably, we found PFDoA levels in 80% of the firefighters, but little in the general public,” Graber said.
Higher chemical levels also were associated with the number of years of firefighting; the average participant had 20 years of experience. Since they are always on call, volunteer firefighters could potentially accumulate more years of firefighting-related exposures than their career counterparts, Graber said.
“The number one risk of a firefighter is being protected from the fire. The chemicals used in fire suppression foam and the protective clothing firefighters use came out 40 years ago when people thought they were safe, and they work well for what they are intended to do,” Graber said. “Further research is needed to better understand the sources of these chemicals and to design effective foam and protective clothing that do not use these chemicals.”
Reference: “Prevalence and Predictors of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Serum Levels among Members of a Suburban US Volunteer Fire Department” by Judith M. Graber, Taylor M. Black, Nimit N. Shah, Alberto J. Caban-Martinez, Shou-en Lu, Troy Brancard, Chang Ho Yu, Mary E. Turyk, Kathleen Black, Michael B. Steinberg, Zhihua Fan and Jefferey L. Burgess, 2 April 2021, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Funding: Federal Emergency Management Agency, Robert Wood Johnson Barnabas Health, Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey