Study: Exposure to Flame Retardant Chemicals Raise Firefighter Cancer Risk

New research by a Blue Hill scientist shows that during a fire, firefighters are exposed to dangerous levels of toxic, cancer-causing chemicals created when commercial flame retardants burn, reports the Maine Sun Journal.

That firefighters develop cancer at an alarming rate is not news to industry professionals or scientists. But Dr. Susan Shaw, founder and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, said there’s still a lot to learn. Shaw and a team of other scientists recently published the results of a study on firefighters in San Francisco.

“We know that firefighters have a high rate of cancer, we know that outcome,” Shaw said in an interview Friday. “So we’re looking for how to connect the dots. What are the chemicals that might be causing these cancers? Do the firefighters have more in their blood immediately after fighting a fire?”

The study tested the blood of 12 firefighters immediately after they responded to an alarm. The results were striking. Its authors, including Shaw, concluded that firefighters are at an even higher risk of cancer than previously thought.

Levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, were three times higher than levels in the general U.S. population, at a rate of 135 parts per billion compared with the national average of 40 parts per billion.

PBDEs are used as flame retardants in household furniture, carpets, plastics, computers and foam insulation. A growing body of evidence suggests the chemicals are toxic to human beings and animals.

Two forms of PBDEs were phased out of production in 2004 because of health concerns. Shaw said both are listed as banned chemicals under the Stockholm Convention, a treaty aimed at eliminating persistent organic pollutants.