Volunteer Firefighters' Blood High in Persistent Pollutants

By Ronnie Cohen

May 17, 2021

(Reuters Health) - New Jersey volunteer firefighters had higher levels of human-made fluorinated chemicals called PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals," in their blood than other Americans, a new bio-monitoring study found.

"Occupationally, they must be exposed to them," Graham Peaslee, a physics professor at the University of Notre Dame, told Reuters Health in a phone interview. He believes the chemicals, used on firefighters' gear to repel water, could be making their way into the bodies of the volunteers through the very suits that are meant to protect them.

"These are firefighters. They keep us and our communities safe, and it's so important that they are kept safe when they're doing these dangerous jobs," said the study's lead author Judith M. Graber, associate professor of epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, include thousands of largely unstudied compounds used in industrial and consumer products starting with Teflon in the 1950s. They have been found in water-repellent clothing, carpets, cosmetics, firefighting foams, microwave popcorn bags and pizza boxes. (https://bit.ly/2RJhWUa)

Multiple illnesses - from heart and kidney disease to cancer - have been associated with exposure to PFAS. They might reduce antibody responses to vaccines as well as resistance to infectious diseases, including COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (https://bit.ly/3eH75D9)

Cancer killed 66% of career, or paid, firefighters who died in the line of duty from 2002 to 2019, and firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer than other Americans. (https://bit.ly/3bjzsFv)

For the study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Graber and her team compared traces of nine PFAS chemicals in the blood of 135 New Jersey volunteer firefighters to those in the general population from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

Researchers detected one "forever chemical" known as PFDoA in 80% of the volunteer firefighters but in fewer than 3% of the NHANES participants from 2015 and 2016 and in none of the NHANES participants from 2017 and 2018. They also found significantly higher serum levels of PFDoA and other long-chain fluorinated chemicals - PFNA and PFDA - in the firefighters than in NHANES participants of the same age, gender, race and ethnicity.

The longer volunteers spent fighting fires, the higher their levels of PFDoA and PFDA, researchers found after controlling for age, education and occupation.

An estimated 80% of New Jersey's and 67% of the U.S.'s firefighters are volunteers.

Peaslee, who was not involved with the current study, suspects the PFAS-doused textiles in the volunteer firefighters' turnout gear were the culprits. The chemicals tend to break down with age, and volunteer firefighters often wear protective suits handed down from paid firefighters, he said.

In a study published last year in Environmental Science & Technology Letters (https://bit.ly/3hnAnIK), Peaslee tested firefighter turnout gear for PFAS and found high levels of the forever chemicals.

He wondered if the volunteer firefighters in the new study had been wearing old gear, had only one set of gear, which they kept in the trunk of their car and washed at home with their other clothes.

Graber was surprised to see increased levels of PFAS in volunteer firefighters because they don't use the foams that career firefighters use and that have been associated with the pollutants, she said in a phone interview.

The results were more confirmation than surprise for Peaslee. Long-chain acids, like PFDoA, are found not only in foam but in textiles, particularly older fabrics used in firefighter protective gear, he said.

When firefighters touch the gear, put it on or take it off, the chemicals are released onto their hands and can make their way into their mouths, he said. The persistent pollutants also might be released as dust and when firefighters sweat.

Three of the manufacturers of firefighting gear recently agreed to switch to fabrics they assure firefighters will not be "a regrettable substitution," Peaslee said. But substitutes often include shorter chain PFAS, the impacts of which remain unknown, the authors of the new study write.

"All this gear not only goes in the firefighter but in the landfill," Peaslee said, "and we all end up drinking it."

SOURCE: https://bit.ly/3xVrpbK International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, online April 2, 2021.