Archive for category Cancer in the fire service

Cancer in the Fire Service – PFAS-free gear

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If you look through the aisles of the Fire Expo Show (in Harrisburg, PA), there are vehicles, equipment, and tools — including gear that does not contain “forever chemicals” that have been linked to cancer and other health problems.

Turnout gear with PFAS was among the items featured, reflecting a shift among some fire companies and departments to begin examining the of use of such equipment. Some studies have shown that forever chemicals are linked to a number of health problems and cancer and are found in widely used fire gear.

San Francisco is eyeing a ban on PFAS in firefighting gear, and some believe federal, state, or local entities may move to similar moves. The chemicals have been removed from many products, though widely used gear in the U.S. is still layered with them.

However, some worry mandates could negatively impact small and volunteer departments due to the high cost.

thanks Martin

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Fire Service news

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Chitvan Killawala and Umer Bakali, two University of Miami graduate students, have developed a special sensor capable of detecting the real-time presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the warm zone at structural fires. 

A class of chemicals that result from burning coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage, and tobacco, PAHs can bind to or form small particles in the air. In laboratory animals, they are known to cause certain cancers. 

Scientists using bulky instruments like mass spectrometers, which require industrial compressed gas cylinders, have measured levels of PAHs in samples in laboratory settings. But deploying such large devices in the field to test for the presence of the chemical is not practical. 

“As a consequence, there’s very little solid evidence on the levels of PAHs firefighters are exposed to, particularly inside the warm zone of an active fire scene where team staging activities occur and where they aren’t suited up in personal protective gear. So, our sensors help fill a void,” said Killawala, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering, who started developing the special sensor about two years ago. 

The two used small commercially available sensors designed to measure vinyl chloride, benzene, and other chemicals. “We tweaked their parameters a bit so that we could test for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,” Bakali explained. “The PAHs interact with the sensor and cause a voltage drop, basically a dip in the way that the sensor reads. And that gives us a readout that we can compare to a baseline when there are no PAHs present.” 

To test the effectiveness of their sensor, the two graduate students had to find a way to position it close enough to a fire without putting themselves at risk. So, they purchased a miniature remote-controlled monster truck from a hobby store, modifying its exterior and mounting their sensor on its top. 

Then, during controlled live burns at fire-training facilities in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Pinellas counties, they drove their modified mobile rover into the warm zones of structural fires. The sensors, which render a readout in just a few seconds, recorded elevated levels of PAHs, providing evidence that firefighters would be wise to don protective gear in the warm zone as a precaution. 

He and Killawala are modifying their sensor to make it more effective and are planning further testing at fire academies. 

They envision their sensor being integrated into the gear firefighters carry, allowing them to measure levels of PAHs at command posts in the warm zone. “Another avenue is just to deploy it in fire stations to measure the concentration of PAHs in the air,” Bakali said.

Firefighters with whom the two graduate students collaborated are optimistic about the sensor’s potential, according to Killawala. “And that’s actually the most exciting part of what we’re doing,” he said. “We see how much they value our data. So, that’s a huge motivating factor for us. This could help inform changes in policy and lead to better occupational safety.”

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Cancer in the fire service

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PFAS chemicals help protect firefighters by repelling water and oils off their gear. They’re also used to make fire-suppressing foams “extremely effective.”

Firefighters were found to be more likely to get diagnosed with cancer and more likely to die from it, according to research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Lawmakers and researchers believe the presence of PFAS class of chemicals in their gear is likely a key reason for this disparity. PFAS have also been linked to other health issues.

Several bills this session aim to help Indiana draw attention to this harmful class of chemicals’ impact on firefighters – but alternatives aren’t available.

“What we’re finding out is that same piece of equipment that we think is helping us is also hurting us to a certain degree,” South Bend Fire Chief Carl Buchanon said in an interview.

South Bend’s fire department lost several firefighters to cancer in recent years. In early January, Firefighter Mike Brown retired from the department after 20 years. Weeks later, he was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer and then died on Feb. 9.

“So that hit home more so than even some of our other previous firefighters that have succumbed to cancer,” Buchanan said. “We all understand what our risk is in this profession and we dedicate our lives faithfully and willingly.”

Firefighters should be able to expect not to have the dangers of work follow them into retirement.

READ MORE: Bill would require labels for firefighting gear with PFAS, even though none are PFAS-free

House Bill 1219 would create a pilot blood-testing program that up to 1,000 firefighters can volunteer to participate in. The House passed HB 1219 with unanimous support Tuesday.

There currently aren’t any manufactured alternatives to firefighter moisture barriers with PFAS in them. The legal safety standards for firefighter gear may be getting in the way of manufacturers’ ability to use a different chemical.

HB 1219 originally appropriated $200,000 from the state’s general fund for this testing program. But that funding was stripped out by the House Ways and Means Committee., but the pilot should be fully funded as the legislature hashes out a new state budget in the coming days. There are also opportunities for federal grants to support the state’s efforts.

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Cancer in the Fire Service

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The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), and the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association are both warning members that the protective gear firefighters wear poses a health risk because it can contain PFAS, synthetic chemicals associated with issues such as an increased risk of liver and kidney cancer.

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they’re nearly impossible to destroy. They’re able to resist stains, grease and water, so are used to make products such as workout clothing, raincoats, and firefighters’ turnout gear, which is designed to block both moisture and heat. In addition to certain cancers, PFAS have also been linked to risks of low birth weight, high cholesterol and thyroid disease.

The groups advised firefighters to wear turnout gear only when absolutely necessary, in order to reduce their exposure to the chemicals. The groups also recommended that firefighters seal the gear in a container or a bag during transport, wash their hands after touching the items and avoid bringing them into firehouse living areas.

The advisory is based on research showing that PFAS can leach out of turnout gear onto firefighters’ skin and potentially enter their bloodstream. But it’s hard to quantify precisely how often that happens or what health risks different exposure levels pose.

Firefighters may be at particular risk of exposure to PFAS from clothing because they wear their gear for long periods of time, often while they’re sweating and exposed to high heat.

But 3M, a manufacturer of turnout gear, questioned the association of PFAS with health risks like cancer. “Global health agencies and researchers acknowledge the limited nature of evidence indicating that PFAS cause harmful effects for specific health endpoints,” the company said in a statement.

Firefighters also get exposed to PFAS through foam used on fires that are difficult to extinguish, though some fire departments have replaced the foam with PFAS-free alternatives. The foam likely poses a greater health threat than turnout gear because firefighters are “drenched in it, and possibly even ingesting and inhaling some of it and absorbing it through their eyes and other mucous membranes.”

The International Association of Fire Fighters said that PFAS is just one source of cancer risk that firefighters face on the job. Cancer caused 61% of line-of-duty deaths among career firefighters from January 2002 to December 2016, according to the union, due to factors such as smoke inhalation and chemical exposure. Firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer than the overall U.S. population, according to federal data, and a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer recently classified firefighting as an occupation as carcinogenic. The IAFF is trying to eliminate exposures where it can, with the understanding that the job still carries risk.

Most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS and have the chemicals in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. PFAS have been found in many consumer goods, including food packaging, carpets, cookware, and personal care products.

The chemicals can lurk in drinking water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS may pose health risks at near-zero concentrations in water, so the agency set new limits for levels of PFAS in drinking water in June.

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Cancer in the fire service

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Cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a team of researchers in Arizona believes it might be because each fire they fight is changing how their genes work, making them more susceptible to cancer and other diseases.

Bryan Jeffries, President of the Professional Firefighters of Arizona was diagnosed with seminoma in 2019, saying that it’s the synthetic materials that are catching fire, exposing them to toxic chemicals.  Gear protects them from the heat of the fires, not from the chemicals.

Dr. Jeff Burgess and his team at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health have been trying to understand how firefighters are at such a high risk for cancers and other diseases. Their latest study, funded by FEMA, found that firefighters undergo DNA methylation, where genes change in their expression without changing their actual DNA sequence. When certain genes are turned on or off it can make people more at risk for things like cancer.

They worked with Tucson Fire Department and studied new recruits through their first few years of working, finding the more fires they went to or how long they spent fighting them added up. They found changes at 680 different places on the genome, many of those genes were related to cancers and other diseases. While it’s not clear if those specific changes will lead definitely to cancer, it’s a lead to understand exactly what does.

With the study taking place at the very beginning of a new recruit’s career, it highlights how quickly these changes happen, and how they can add up over years on the job.

While firefighters are continually working on decontamination of their gear and themselves, keeping gear exposed to the chemicals out of the cab and in a separate area of the firehouse, there’s still more that can be done with changing equipment and tactics.

The team at UArizona is already expanding the study, working with even more fire departments around the country to understand exactly what DNA methylation sites are affected in firefighters.

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Cancer in the fire service

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Firefighters from Fall River and Hyannis joined their colleagues on Nantucket Monday in an effort to begin understanding just how much of the PFAS chemicals in their turnout gear is absorbed into their bodies.

“My involvement really stems from having to bury two 30-year-old firefighters from cancer,” said Jason Burns of the Fall River Fire Department. “Cancer has always been a part of our job, we get it. But something changed. Why are we now burying 30-year-olds? It used to be 50-, 60-, 70-year-olds that got cancer. Something changed and to me, it changed when they started pumping our gear full of these PFAS chemicals. You’re seeing guys getting cancer younger, and the cancer is more aggressive.”

The firefighters took part in three tests. The first was intended to measure the overall level of PFAS in their blood, and see how it compares to that of national averages. Then there were two skin tests; the first before putting on their turnout gear, and then after wearing their turnout gear for two to three hours while they built up a sweat.

The project is being spearheaded by the Nantucket PFAS Action Group, which was awarded a community grant from the Universtiy of Massachusetts’ TURI (Toxics Use Reduction Institute), to learn more about PFAS in firefighter gear.

Nantucket is one of the first firefighting communities in the nation to use new turnout gear that has substantially less PFAS, which is known for its water-resistant qualities, that have coated firefighting gear for decades. Those involved in the study want to compare the results from firefighters wearing the new turnout gear versus those wearing the older gear.

PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in a wide variety of products, from food packaging to clothing and household products for decades. Firefighting turnout gear as well as firefighting foam have been known to have particularly high levels.

The chemicals don’t break down easily and accumulate in the environment and in the human body. While they continue to be studied, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has found evidence that PFAS exposure can lead to a host of adverse health effects including certain types of cancer, increased cholesterol levels, negative effects on reproductive organs and thyroid disruption.

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Cancer in the Fire Service

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Inspired by a Chicago firefighter who has pushed hard for his brothers and sisters to be screened for lung cancer, this weekend will see the launch of a special series of screenings for firefighters.

Pat Cleary, the vice president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 said. “Maybe we should do that for the rest of the firefighters in Chicago. So I reached out to Dr. (Christopher) Seder and he responded.”

That phone call led the union to team up with Rush University Medical Center to hold lung cancer screening and health fairs, with the first one set for this Saturday. Specific criteria must be met for an annual low-dose CT scan to be covered by insurance companies, and must include a history of smoking.

CFD Union Local 2 will instead pick up the cost for firefighters who don’t meet that criteria if they schedule a screening during a health fair.

Firefighters see a 60% increase in their chances of being diagnosed with lung cancer, according to studies, and health experts say that firefighters should be screened for lung cancer yearly.

Rush University’s Dr. Nicole Geissen says that early detection can make all the difference. “We know that if we can detect lung cancer in the early stages, say Stage 1 or 2, then the survival rate and disease-free interval is much better than late stage cancer,” the thoracic surgeon said.

According to officials, there are still spots open for Saturday’s health fair, but Rush is asking that firefighters call 312-947-LUNG (5864) to schedule their screenings.

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Cancer in the fire service

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Firefighters are getting cancer at a high rate because of the elements they are exposed to.

Mark Munson, a captain with St. Paul Fire Department, got a big idea from the hoods firefighters use that cover the head and neck. He felt like there were other parts of their body that needed protection, specifically high exposure areas like underarms and groin. He founded Under Guardian with one simple goal – to reduce firefighter cancer. The company makes microfiber pieces for firefighters to wear under their gear that blocks almost all contaminants.

The biggest challenge is getting fire departments to invest in the product, because it’s costly to make, about $240 for a set of gear.


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Cancer in the Fire Service

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January is Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month. The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) says from 2015 through 2020, 75% of those added to the Fallen Firefighter Memorial of Honor Wall were members who died from occupational cancer. While battling fires, crews are exposed to toxic chemicals.

Illinois State Fire Marshal Matt Perez said “These contaminants remained on gear and on the skin of firefighters and could be transferred to fire department vehicles firehouse living spaces and most frightening transferred back to their homes at the end of the shift. And the old image of the firefighter with soot on the face and sweat dripping down, we’ve got to get rid of that, right?” Perez said. “That’s romantic from the fire service, but that is also the chemicals that sit in the surface and sit on your skin, that is causing these cancers, so we want to see clean firefighters.”

It’s essential firefighters get their annual physicals and follow-ups, have full personal protective equipment, track exposures to carcinogens, decontaminate immediately at the scene and launder gear after every event. 

In 2020, the state launched a preliminary exposure reduction training project. About half of the fire departments in Illinois -including Chicago- have completed the training. In return, departments received a free decontamination kit for every vehicle utilized. 

Perez says he wants the state’s more than 40,000 firefighters to be aware of the risks and the resources available to help them.  

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Cancer in the fire service


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The increased rates of cancer in the fire service have been a key topic for researchers and firefighters alike. In 2015, an IAFF study found particles of soot and smoke from structure fires could penetrate a firefighter’s turnout gear and could be contributing to the spike in cancer rates among firefighters.

Data gathered from a mannequin armed with sensors known at N.C. State as Pyroman, is one tool researchers are using to better protect firefighters from carcinogens that increase their risk of cancer. At Raleigh and N.C. State, there are half a dozen ongoing research projects aimed at providing better protections for firefighters.  At N.C. State’s Textile Protection and Comfort Center, researchers are using Pyroman and PyroHead to combat soot and smoke in structure fires from penetrating a firefighter’s turnout gear, which could be contributing to the spike in cancer rates among firefighters.

Researchers are studying what chemical compounds are getting stuck to and later releasing from a firefighter’s turnout gear. That could be relevant for volunteer firefighters who may store their gear in their personal vehicles and puts anyone in the vehicle, including their families, at risk for exposure to carcinogens.

N.C. State is also focusing on glands on a firefighter’s face and neck and whether protective hoods are enough. In 2018, N.C. state developed a device, a particulate filtration efficiency test, with a light meter attached, that lets fire departments check their hoods for weaknesses.

Getting soot and grime off a firefighter’s skin sooner also has more departments using wipes on scene. 

The research projects at N.C. State are funded through FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. To learn more about the program, click on the following link: NC State University Heat and Flame Protection TPACC

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