Double jeopardy: firefighters face physical and chemical threats

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Running into burning buildings puts firefighters in immediate and obvious danger.  The long-term effects of chemical exposures were less obvious until now. In an op-ed in The Hill, Doctor of Public Health and toxicologist Susan Shaw shares the findings of a study analyzing chemicals in the blood of firefighters.  The study

“provides the first clear evidence that firefighters accumulate high levels of brominated flame retardants, and their combustion by-products – brominated dioxins and furans – while firefighting”.

In an ironic and tragic twist, flame retardant chemicals that were supposed to increase safety actually add to the danger firefighters face.

Fire retardant chemicals are in our homes and buildings in increasing measure.  They are in our sofas, electronics, insulation, and an array of applications.  As a result, fires today are more toxic than in the past and

“when flame-retarded materials burn during a house fire, large amounts of cancer-causing dioxins and furans are released into the smoke and dust that firefighters cannot avoid inhaling, ingesting, and absorbing through their skin”.

Firefighters suffer very high rates of several cancers and other health problems. In a 2006 LeMaster’s study, results confirmed previous findings of an elevated risk for multiple myeloma among firefighters. In addition, a probable association with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate, and testicular cancer was demonstrated.

Dr. Shaw points out the flame retardant industry’s propensity for replacing banned chemicals with dangerous substitutes.  She calls on legislators to protect the health of firefighters and all Americans by passing the Safe Chemicals Act in the Senate this year.  Since the publication of this op-ed, the bipartisan Chemical Safety Improvement Act was introduced in the senate.  The bill is a starting point for reforming TSCA.

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