Firefighters Exposed to More Potentially Hazardous Toxins than Previously Thought


Firefighters on duty experience higher exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. This class of chemicals is known to have the potential to cause cancer and other related diseases.

A recent Oregon University study suggested that firefighters were more likely to be exposed to potentially harmful toxins affecting the lungs while on duty than off duty. With firefighters battling more fires and more toxic smoke than ever, there was new evidence of more poisons in the air they breathe and even gear they wear.

According to the report, the firefighters experienced exposure to toxins affecting the lungs, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs, a family of chemicals known to have the potential to cause cancer. They were also exposed to 18 PAHs that have not been previously reported as firefighting exposures in earlier research.

Increased Levels of Toxins

The study, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is published in the journal Environment International. The results are significant because previous studies have shown that firefighters have an increased risk of developing cancer and other damaging health effects. The said study led Kim Anderson, an environmental chemist and Extension specialist in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

In California, the 2018 Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. The San Francisco Fire Department deployed over 6,000 firefighters to battle the inferno during the peak of Camp Fire. Battalion chief Mat Alba who led a crew of 22, described it, saying, “It was like a war zone.”

When the fight was over, Alba, who is on the San Francisco firefighters’ cancer prevention foundation, and his crew were tested. The results showed increased levels of toxins affecting the brain, including heavy metals. Sarah Alba, Matt’s wife, said:

“I remember him saying how eerie it was […] it was different in that way. The neurosurgeon, when asked, when did the tumor start growing? He put it at three years.”

Natural and Human-Created

Fast forward to now; Matt Alba is currently recovering from brain cancer. Sometimes, his wife Sarah works with him to communicate. While no one can say for sure that he breathed toxins affecting the brain directly from the smoke he breathed during Camp Fire, this is undoubtedly circumstantial evidence. 

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.

“We don’t have enough data to profile the source of the PAHs, but we know PAHs appear from combustion, and combustion is their work,” Anderson said. “They are also putting on a heavy load of protective gear that has PAHs, and they use cleaning products that have PAHs.”

The firefighters involved in the Oregon University study wore personal passive samplers in the shape of a military-style dog tag made of silicone on an adjustable 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.

This study demonstrates that the dog tags, which absorb chemicals from the air and skin, appear to be a reliable sampling technology necessary for assessing chemical exposures in firefighters, Anderson said. He added: 

“I’m quite confident those exposures existed, but if you don’t have something to help you find them, you don’t know for sure […] certainly, we found that it’s a lot more than what people had thought.”

Gear Meant To Protect Firefighters

In a related study by Stanford University’s Sean Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research are regularly testing San Francisco firefighters for toxins, Center director Dr. Mary Prunicki suggested that firefighters were bearing the brunt of climate change. She said:

“We know climate change is contributing to the increased number, duration, and intensity of wildfires, without doubt […] wildfires are contributing more and more to pollution. The more wildfires, the more danger we’re putting our firefighters in.”

Add to that; there are far more types of poisons in the air from the new materials used in homes. Researchers are also investigating toxins coming from the same gear meant to protect firefighters. Kailin Waterman with the San Francisco Fire Department said:

“We are currently testing new equipment. We have a few participants in the control group that’s also studying old turnout equipment that we’ve used in the past […] we have published results of teenagers exposed to wildfire smoke 60 miles away and found changes in their inflammatory markers […] so, we are pretty sure we are going to see differences pre-and post-smoke exposure in these firefighters.”