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Firefighters are exposed to higher levels of 'forever-chemical' on the job, study shows

Firefighters in Thousand Oaks monitor a house fully engulfed by fire.
Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Firefighters in Thousand Oaks monitor a house fully engulfed by fire.

Duke University scientists are using a new method of tracking exposure to PFAS chemicals: silicon wristbands. It may help them figure out which chemicals workers are exposed to on the job.

Firefighters have a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general adult U.S. population, and scientists are still unsure why.

That’s why the Durham Fire Department reached out to Duke University for a study on their exposure, using inexpensive silicone wristbands that absorb environmental contaminants.

Ph.D. student Jessica Levasseur led the study, and said it’s the first of its kind to use these silicone wristbands to test for PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — a family of thousands of chemicals sometimes known as 'forever chemicals,' because they do not degrade under most circumstances and can accumulate in the body.

"Ordinary silicone wristbands, like the ones sold in stores, absorb the semi-volatile organic compounds you’re exposed to while you’re out in the world,” she said.

Firefighters are an ideal group of subjects to study because their exposure is quite different from the general population, and because there are lingering questions about the health impacts of their job.

"Most of us don't walk into a burning building," Levasseur said. "And so even though there's a chemical that we may never be exposed to, because it's inside a wall somewhere, firefighters are being exposed to that chemical.”

During the study, 20 firefighters from DFD wore the wristbands while on shift, then wore different wristbands on their days off. Then, both sets were tested for 134 different chemicals, including PFOS (a legacy PFAS) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH. Both are correlated with cancer, and both tested at higher levels on the wristbands Durham Firefighters wore while on shift, especially when fighting fires.

Levasseur says these wristbands are an exciting development in workplace safety, and they may someday help workers of all kinds learn more about their risks in the workplace.

"We're hoping that in understanding how firefighters have different exposures while they're at work, we can better understand why their firefighter cancer risks are higher," she said.

Future studies will need to expand the testing population to learn more about these exposures, but it's all a matter of funding.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.