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Links between chemical exposure and health outcomes in Maine fire fighters

Fire fighters have high rates of many types of cancers including four types that are thought to be related to their occupational exposure to carcinogens

Dr. Susan D. Shaw, environmental health scientist and president and founder of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, today announced a new study on Maine fire fighters at the annual meeting of the Association of Maine Fire Chiefs at the Augusta Civic Center. The study, “An Investigation of Chemical Exposure and Health Outcomes in Maine Fire Fighters” will begin in 2014 and will follow participants over a 15-year period.

Tragically, fire fighters have high rates of many types of cancers including four types that are thought to be related to their occupational exposure to carcinogens —multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer and testicular cancer. Three years ago, the Maine legislature passed the Presumptive Cancer Law offering Maine fire fighters coverage for 10 different types of cancer after five years of active duty.

Fire fighters are exposed to multiple toxic and carcinogenic chemicals both during and while cleaning up after fires. Ironically, the toxicity of building fires today is exacerbated by the presence of chemicals in flame-retarded plastics, foam furniture, televisions, computers, building insulation, and other materials. When these materials burn, large amounts of carcinogens are released into the smoke and soot that firefighters inhale, ingest, and absorb through their skin – while on the job and after, through contact with contaminated gear.

Dr. Shaw was the lead scientist on a study of chemical exposure in California fire fighters recently published in the scientific journal Chemosphere.

“The California study provided clear evidence that fire fighters accumulate high levels of cancer-causing chemicals each time they respond to building fires,” she commented. “Fire fighters have much higher levels and different patterns of these chemicals in their blood than the general population. What we have shown here points to the possible link between firefighting and cancer."

The new study will analyze the blood of 50 Maine fire fighters after a fire event to determine the levels of a wide range of toxic, carcinogenic chemicals as well as pre-cancer and cancer indicators. The first of its kind, the study aims to identify chemicals that are probable factors in the development of cancers. Fire fighters in the Maine study will be re-tested at five, 10, and 15 years to evaluate long-term health outcomes.

John Martell, President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine, stated, “This study is important not only for Maine fire fighters but for fire fighters all across the US and Canada to see exactly what we are exposed to in addition to carbon monoxide and cyanide. We need to get a better handle as to how we can protect ourselves and prevent the exposure. At the end of the day we want to go home safely to our families and at the end of our careers to enjoy a disease-free life.”

According to Dr. Shaw, “Exposure has not been adequately assessed in fire fighters and at present the relationship between firefighting exposure and cancer risk is not clear. The research we are conducting in Maine will change that picture and will be a model for future studies.”

Dr. Shaw is Professor, School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health Sciences, State University of New York at Albany, NY. She is a nationally recognized expert on environmental chemicals in indoor and outdoor environments, and is widely known for her research on flame retardants and other toxic chemicals in wildlife and humans.

by S. C.
07 october 2013, World News > America