New Study Reveals Additional Chemical Exposure Risk for Firefighters

In the midst of growing concerns about the serious health risks associated with exposure to cancer-causing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals from firefighting foam, a new study warns that firefighters may be exposed to another class of toxic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and heart attack-related death, among other health problems. If you or a loved one is a current or former firefighter who has been diagnosed with cancer or another serious medical condition allegedly caused by occupational exposure to potentially toxic chemicals, contact us today to find out if you are eligible to file a claim for compensation. Exposure to toxic firefighting foam and other carcinogenic chemicals on the job may increase the risk of cancer and other health problems among firefighters, and an experienced attorney can help you pursue the compensation you deserve for the harm you have suffered.

Increased Risk of Cancer Among Firefighters

In a study published in the September 2020 issue of Environmental International, researchers from the Department of Toxicology at Oregon State University and the Center for Fire, Rescue and EMS Health Research in Kansas, used specially designed silicone dog tags to assess firefighters’ exposure to occupational chemical hazards both on- and off-duty. The study was conducted in response to what the researchers call a “relatively high incidence” of adverse health outcomes among career and volunteer firefighters, including job-related cancers. In fact, previous research suggests that firefighters have an estimated 10-20% increased risk of cancer compared to the general population (or as much as double the risk for certain cancers) and has established a probable link between firefighting and the following cancers, among others:

  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Prostate cancer
  • Brain cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Gallbladder cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Mesothelioma
  • Skin cancer
  • Testicular cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Melanoma

Occupational Exposure to Toxic Chemicals

According to the researchers, the higher risk of cancer and cancer-related death among firefighters is believed to be linked to occupational exposure to toxic chemicals that are specific to the fire service. For instance, carcinogenic PFAS chemicals like perfluorooctane acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) that are found in firefighter foam, or aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), a potentially dangerous product that has been used for decades by military and civilian firefighters across the country for fire suppression emergencies and training purposes. PFAS, known as “forever” chemicals, can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled through exposure in the atmosphere, and the chemicals can build up in the body and remain there for long periods of time, increasing the risk of serious adverse health consequences, including cancer.

In order to get a better look at the extent to which firefighters are exposed to potentially harmful chemicals, the researchers equipped 56 firefighters with military-style dog tags, worn by the firefighters both on- and off-duty between November 2018 and March 2019. The dog tags were designed to detect more than 1,500 chemicals, including flame retardants, pesticides and PAHs. “During fire suppression activities, firefighters may be exposed to recognized or probable carcinogens, such as select polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), diesel fumes, and asbestos,” the researchers wrote. In fact, the chemical exposure dog tags detected 45 unique PAHs, 18 of which were not previously reported as firefighter chemical exposures. PAHs are a class of more than 100 chemicals that are produced whenever coal, gas, oil, wood, garbage or tobacco are burned. The chemicals can bind to or form small particles in the air and may be inhaled, swallowed, or in some cases, absorbed through the skin.

Health Risks of PAH Exposure

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, some PAHs may cause cancer and can also affect the eyes, kidneys and liver. In addition to a potential increased risk of cancer, exposure to PAHs has been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack-related death, among other adverse health consequences, such as high blood pressure and heart rate, progression of atherosclerosis, airway inflammation and asthma. The researchers involved in the Environmental International study noted that PAH concentrations among the study participants were more strongly correlated with the number of fire suppression activities the firefighters participated in than the firefighters’ rank or years of service. They also found that the PAH concentrations were higher when the firefighters were on duty, compared to off duty, and that captains and fire chiefs overall experienced lower PAH concentrations, compared to those in the field.

“To the authors’ knowledge, this study is the first to identify personal firefighter exposures to 18 unique PAHs,” the researchers wrote. “Notably, six of these previously unidentified PAHs were detected in over 75% of the dog tags: 2-ethylnaphthalene, 1,4-dimethylnaphthalene, 1,5-dimethylnaphthalene, 1,2-dimethylnaphthalene, dibenzothiophene, and 2-methylanthracene.” Because several of the chemicals detected by the researchers in this study are listed as possible carcinogens, the researchers remarked that future firefighter exposure studies should focus on evaluating complex mixtures of chemical exposures to assess individual health risks. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer or another serious health issue and you believe occupational exposure to toxic chemicals to be the cause, contact an experienced product liability lawyer as soon as possible to discuss your legal options.