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When Flame Retardants Burn: Toxic Exposure and Health Risks to Firefighters

A groundbreaking new study published by environmental toxicologist Dr. Susan Shaw and co-authors provides new evidence that brominated flame retardants in burning household materials endangers the health of U.S. firefighters. It is the first study to measure brominated dioxins and furans in firefighters’ blood and shows for the first time that exposure to these chemicals during fires may carry even higher risks for cancer and other health problems than already demonstrated.

Dr. Susan Shaw, the study's lead scientist, stated, “Our study provides clear evidence that firefighters are exposed to high levels of cancer-causing chemicals including brominated flame retardants and their combustion by-products – dioxins and furans – that are formed during fires by the burning of flame-retarded foam furniture, televisions, computers and building materials. Firefighters have much higher levels and different patterns of these chemicals in their blood than the general population. There is no doubt that firefighting is a dangerous occupation. What we have shown here points to the possible link between firefighting and cancer.”

According to Dr. Shaw, the findings underscore the need for stronger regulations to protect not only firefighters but all Americans from exposure to toxic, carcinogenic chemicals in everyday consumer products.

The study, titled "Persistent Organic Pollutants including Polychlorinated and Polybrominated Dibenzo-p-dioxins and Dibenzofurans in from Northern California" and in Chemosphere, can be viewed here.

Study Highlights:

  • During fires, large amounts of cancer-causing dioxins and furans are produced by combustion of materials containing brominated and chlorinated substrate. Since firefighters are known to have high rates of cancer, the study focuses on the exposure of firefighters to these compounds while firefighting.
  • Previous studies of firefighters have focused on exposure to chlorinated dioxins and furans. This pilot study is the first to measure brominated dioxins/furans (PBDD/Fs) in blood of firefighters. Because homes and offices contain large amounts of brominated flame retardants, we expected to find brominated dioxins/furans in firefighter blood.
  • Brominated dioxin and furan concentrations in firefighter blood were extremely high, and were 21 times more toxic than the chlorinated dioxins and furans. The authors conclude that brominated dioxins and furans may pose a greater cancer risk to firefighters than previously thought.
  • Patterns of the brominated flame retardants, PBDEs in the firefighters were dominated by deca-BDE. A deca-dominated pattern is not found in the general population, but is typical of the pattern found in blood of e waste recyclers continuously exposed to deca-BDE resulting from open burning of plastic TVs and computers.
  • The firefighters also had elevated levels of two perfluorinated chemicals, PFOA and PFNA. PFOA, a cancer-causing chemical that is linked to the risk of stroke, was phased out of commerce in 2001 but is released in large amounts from household and building materials during fires.
  • The findings of this pilot study indicate that firefighters are at risk for cancer and serious health effects from their occupational exposure. A larger study of firefighters is planned. 

Click here to view the full study >

For more information, click the links below:
"Toxic Hot Seat"  Ellsworth American, February 6, 2014
"Maine Scientist to Study Link Between Fire Fighters and Cancer" WABI-TV, December 4, 2013
"Maine Firefighters' Toxic Exposure to be Subject of Study" MPBN Radio, October 7, 2013
"Chemical Exposure and Cancer Risk in Fire Fighters"  Webinar presentation, February 3, 2014
"Study to track firefighter exposure to chemicals" Kennebec Journal, October 3, 2013
"Blue Hill researcher to begin 15-year study of cancer risk in Maine firefighters" Bangor Daily News, October 3, 2013

 

Dr. Susan Shaw talks to the Maine Fire Chiefs' Association about Fire Fighting and Cancer

From the October 3, 2013 meeting of the Maine Fire Chiefs' Association, Augusta, Maine.

“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.” -John Martell, President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine

Firefighters

“Our study provides clear evidence that firefighters are exposed to high levels of cancer-causing chemicals including brominated flame retardants and their combustion by-products – dioxins and furans – that are formed during fires by the burning of flame-retarded foam furniture, televisions, computers and building materials. Firefighters have much higher levels and different patterns of these chemicals in their blood than the general population. There is no doubt that firefighting is a dangerous occupation. What we have shown here points to the possible link between firefighting and cancer.”

-Dr. Susan Shaw, Lead Scientist

Chemical Exposure and Cancer Risk in Fire Fighters

Dr. Susan Shaw presents her research during a February 3rd webinar that addressed occupational exposures, cancer and other health concerns among fire fighters, first responders, and military personnel.

Maine Scientist to Study Link Between Fire Fighters and Cancer

Maine Scientist to study link between fire fighting and cancer

Dr. Shaw recently appeared on the WABI-TV evening news to discuss our upcoming study of chemical exposure and cancer in Maine fire fighters. In Maine most of our 12,000 career and volunteer fire fighters do not have a backup set of gear and must wear dirty gear when on call.
View the WABI-TV story >

Study shows source of toxic,
cancer-causing chemicals

Maine Firefighters' Toxic Exposure to be Subject of Study

Listen to Dr. Shaw's interview with Tom Porter which aired on MPBN Radio's "Maine Things Considered"
Click here to listen >

Click here to view the study poster from the BFR 2013 conference in San Francisco


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