UC Berkeley researchers study chemical exposure for women firefighters

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Scientists from UC Berkeley, UCSF and the Massachusetts-based research organization Silent Spring Institute published a study Feb. 26 regarding the historically under-investigated topic of health risks for women firefighters.

Published by the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the study found that female firefighters are exposed to larger quantities of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, than their counterparts working in offices. Because of their water and stain resistant properties, these chemicals are prevalent in products that firefighters use. These chemicals have also been linked to breast cancer in previous human and animal studies.

“This study started because firefighters in San Francisco — women firefighters in particular — along with an organization called the San Francisco Firefighter Cancer Prevention Foundation started to notice what they thought were elevated rates of premenopausal breast cancer among women firefighters in the city,” said senior author and campus public health professor Rachel Morello-Frosch. “They wanted to see whether or not it was possible to conduct a study to look at the extent to which chemicals might be associated with breast cancer in the fire service.”

The group examined blood samples from a cohort of women firefighters within the San Francisco Fire Department and compared them with samples from women office workers in San Francisco, looking for the presence of PFAS.

The team published another paper in the same journal that looks at a different method of measuring exposure to different chemicals within the cohorts, according to Morello-Frosch. It also plans to continue its research by studying chemicals like flame retardants and looking at women in other occupational groups.

“It’s a community-engaged study where we’re actually collaborating with the firefighters in the study design and the data collection and then the publication of results,” Morello-Frosch said.

Although PFAS are associated with higher occurrences of breast cancer, the study does not make any claims regarding the health impacts of the data, according to lead author and campus public health graduate student Jessica Trowbridge.

Trowbridge added that past studies have indicated that firefighters have a higher rate of breast cancer, but they have not focused on women. Potentially, research in this area can have implications for workers’ compensation and prevention practices, according to Trowbridge.

Co-author and UCSF assistant professor Roy Gerona said as researchers collect more data related to these types of exposures, there will be stronger evidence supporting the need for changes that will prevent exposure.

“We actually know that firefighters are exposed to a lot of different toxic chemicals — a lot of these chemicals are related to cancer,” Trowbridge said.“We’re just providing some evidence that women share the same exposures as their male counterparts.”

Emma Rooholfada is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @erooholfada_dc.