Firefighting, Health & Safety

Study to Track Firefighter Exposure to Chemicals

Research now shows firefighters are at a greater risk of developing cancer because of exposure to toxic chemicals while fighting fires, reports

A recently published study of firefighters in California from Dr. Susan Shaw, an environmental scientist based in Blue Hill, found higher levels of chemicals from commercial flame retardants and other household materials than expected, increasing firefighters’ risk of developing cancer later in life.

Showing the actual health outcomes of the chemical exposure, however, is the goal of a new 15-year study Shaw presented at the annual meeting of the Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association at the Augusta Civic Center.

Shaw, founder and president of the Blue Hill-based Marine Environmental Research Institute, said the study will follow 50 Maine firefighters over a 15-year period, analyzing their blood after fires to determine the levels of chemicals and cancer indicators.

The California study found two to three times higher levels of chemicals from flame retardants — polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs — than most of the population.

The high levels of toxic chemicals place firefighters at a higher risk, but the longer-term study will try to identify the chemicals that factor in the development of cancer. Shaw said the study is the first of its kind.

“Exposure has not been adequately assessed in firefighters, and the relationship between firefighter and cancer risk is not well understood,” she said, “so the research we’re going to do here in Maine will be a model for future studies.”

She said some chemicals have been phased out of production, and several states, including Maine, have banned some types of flame retardants. Yet the chemicals still are commonly found in homes in plastics, foam, furniture, carpets, mattresses, TVs and computers.

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