New research published in the journal Environment International suggests that firefighters may be more exposed to carcinogens while on-duty than previously thought. The study took a look at firefighters in Kansas City, Missouri, and found that they experienced high levels of exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are known carcinogens.
PAHs form after most kinds of combustion, both natural and anthropogenic, including burning wood, plants, tobacco, and fossil fuels. They are also found in certain industrial processes and products.
According to past literature, firefighters have an increased risk of developing cancer and other damaging health effects. This study, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, aimed to investigate reasons for those health inequities. It found that firefighters were exposed to 18 PAHs that have not been previously reported as firefighting exposures in earlier research.
"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," said study lead Kim Anderson, who is an environmental chemist and Extension specialist in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences. "They are also putting on a heavy load of protective gear that has PAHs, and they use cleaning products that have PAHs."
The firefighters participating in the study wore silicone dog tags capable of sampling the chemicals in the air and on the skin. These personal passive samplers have already been in use to measure air quality and pollution because they can easily and accurately assess chemical exposure.
"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."
The increased exposure is frightening, but Anderson says there are simple steps firefighters can take to reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals. Such steps include always wearing personal protective equipment, taking a shower after each fire, and cleaning gear after every fire.