UArizona granted $1.5M to study firefighters’ health risks

Feb 15, 2020, 4:15 AM
(The Orange County Register via AP)...
(The Orange County Register via AP)
(The Orange County Register via AP)

PHOENIX — Firefighters put their lives on the line when battling out-of-control blazes, but there is increasing concern that they also face significant health risks from exposure to lesser-known hazards.

According to the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are “a group of synthetic, fluorinated chemicals used worldwide since the 1940s” and are also a key ingredient in aqueous film-forming foam, also known as “firefighter foam,” which is used to extinguish flames fueled by combustible liquids.

There is also concern that significant residue from PFAS has contaminated much of the protective gear worn by firefighters.

While research on the risks posed to firefighters from these synthetic chemicals is scarce, U of A’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health associate dean of research Jeffrey Burgess will be digging deeper into the issue via a $1.5 million Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant.

Researchers from the University of Miami and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health will also be participating in Burgess’ study.

Burgess told KTAR News 92.3 FM that airport firefighters could be in a particularly high risk category.

“These PFAS chemicals have historically been in the foams that they use for fighting airplane fires, and also in the training for those fires,” Burgess said.

Burgess pointed out that, due to a Federal Aviation Administration mandate, firefighters are required to use fluorinated foams to battle airplane blazes, a policy that could be affected by the findings of his inquiry.

Researchers will be testing the blood and urine of firefighters to determine the precise amounts of PFAS in their bodies, along with zeroing in on the best practices for limiting overall exposure to the potentially harmful chemicals.

Burgess is no stranger to firefighter related research, and his collaboration with the Tuscon Fire Department has resulted in new practices for the station’s team.

“Washing dirty gear right away, or ‘wash downs,’ immediately after leaving a fire scene, making sure dirty gear is bagged so other people are not exposed to it, and taking a shower as soon as they get back to the station, substantially reduces the amount of chemicals in their urine showing the interventions are effective,” Burgess noted.

“What we’ve been able to show so far is that everyone who responds to a fire has an increased level of chemical exposure,” he said.

Burgess’ research also stands to benefit the health of not just firefighters, but also anyone who responds to the scene of a fire, as even paramedics, investigators, and truck engineers have shown elevated PFAS levels in urine samples.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Ali Vetnar contributed to this report.

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UArizona granted $1.5M to study firefighters’ health risks