“Firefighters spend large portions of their shift waiting for calls
in a station, during which they can be exposed to diesel exhaust
from idling trucks (which is a known carcinogen) and off-gassing
from contaminated post-fire gear (which may be contaminated with a
variety of known and/or possible carcinogens),” researchers point
out in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
Several studies in recent years have found that firefighters have
elevated risks for cancers of the lungs, skin, esophagus, brain,
kidney and prostate.
“We know about the chemicals, heat and stress in the field, but
what's left out is the chronic low-level exposure at the fire
station during day-to-day business,” lead study author Dr. Emily
Sparer of Harvard's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston told
Reuters Health by phone.
The Boston Fire Department approached Sparer's team with concerns
about firefighters becoming sick at young ages. Although department
staff knew that diesel exhaust, dust and ash caused sinus and
breathing issues, they weren't sure when and where the most exposure
“There are still a lot of questions about why firefighters get
cancer,” Sparer said. “By delving into the stations, we're trying to
start the process of answering those questions.”
Sparer and colleagues sampled air particles at four Boston fire
stations in spring 2016, looking for particulate matter less than
2.5 millimeters in diameter. These small particles are considered
dangerous to human health because they can be inhaled and become
lodged in the lungs. They also looked for particle-bound polycyclic
aromatic hydrocarbons, which are chemicals released from burning
coal, oil, gas, trash and wood.
They took air samples from the kitchen, truck bay, and outside the
station - and conducted interviews with officers at each station to
understand health and safety-related policies and practices, such as
engine idle-time and washing of contaminated clothing.
Particulate matter was present in higher concentrations in the truck
bay than in either the kitchen or the outdoors, but levels varied
throughout the day.
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Newer building materials and effective separation between the
different building zones helped keep levels low in the firefighters'
living areas, the study authors found. Policies for ventilating
truck exhaust outside and the washing of bunker gear after a fire
also had large influences on air quality.
“What stuck out to me was the degree to which the built environment
matters in these stations,” Sparer said. “Seeing the numbers,
hearing the stories, and being there in person really helped.”
Sparer and colleagues hope to sample air in additional stations and
at different times of the year. They're also talking to officers at
the Boston stations about simple steps they can take to reduce
risks, such as removing gym equipment from the truck bay, installing
commercial-grade washing machines for gear, and closing doors to
living areas, when possible.
“We're not saying that every old fire department should tear down
its station. That's not feasible,” she said. “But design matters,
and there are a few small changes that could prevent these
A limitation of the study is the small size, which makes it
difficult to assess whether the exposure numbers are exceptional,
said Eero Pukkala of the University of Tampere in Helsinki, Finland.
Pukkala, who wasn't involved with this study, has studied cancer
among firefighters in Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Sweden.
Comparison with other indoor locations, such as other workplaces,
would be helpful as well to understand the numbers and the severity
that firefighters face, he told Reuters Health by email.
“Of course, it’s important to understand whether these pollutants
cause health hazards,” Pukkala added.
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/2vWEO6q Journal of Occupational and
Environmental Medicine, online August 2, 2017.
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