A new Oregon State University (OSU) study suggests that on-duty firefighters are exposed to high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are a family of chemicals that are known to have the potential to cause cancer.
PAHs are a large group of chemical compounds that contain carbon and other elements. They form naturally after almost any type of combustion, both natural and human-created.
In addition to burning wood, plants, and tobacco, PAHs are also in fossil fuels.
The firefighters in the FEMA-funded study, led by Kim Anderson, an environmental chemist and Extension specialist in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, wore personal passive samplers in the shape of a military-style dog tag made of silicone on an elastic necklace.
The tags are made of the same material as OSU’s patented silicone wristbands that Anderson’s lab has been using for several years to study chemical exposure in humans and cats.
After completing a survey on demographics, occupational history, and suspected current exposures, the recruited firefighters wore a dog tag during the next 30 on- and off-shift days.
During fire calls, tags were worn over clothing but underneath their gear. The firefighters were instructed to wear the dog tags continuously during all regular activities, including eating, showering, and sleeping.
The participants also received a fact sheet about firefighters and cancer risk. The fact sheet includes some simple steps firefighters can take to reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals, such as always wearing their personal protective equipment, taking a shower after each fire and before ending their shift, and cleaning their gear after every fire.
Sampling occurred from November 2018 to April 2019.