Firefighters who responded to the Tubbs Fire in 2017 saw increased levels of chemicals in their systems after returning from the front lines, according to a new study.
The study was conducted by the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation. The preliminary results of the study found that firefighters returning from the fire had increased levels of mercury and perfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, in blood and urine tests.
“These can build up in a firefighter’s system and make them sick in the long run,” San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson said. “Either cancer or some other disease.”
Rachel Morello-Forsch, the principal investigator on the study and a professor of environmental science at University of California at Berkeley, said the chemicals are commonly found in firefighter gear and foams, as well as in consumer products.
Nicholson said that when San Francisco firefighters go out on mutual aid, they are no longer just responding to wildland incidents where only trees and brush are burning. Now, firefighters are responding to a wildland-urban interface, which includes burning houses and the chemicals inside them.
“Increasingly, urban firefighters are being called on to do mutual aid, and very often without the personal protective equipment that they are accustomed to using in urban settings,” Morello-Forsch said.
Firefighters cannot use equipment such as an oxygen tank or turnout gear during these fires because they need to be as mobile as possible.
According to the department, 148 firefighters took place in the study three weeks after firefighters returned home from the event. Thirty-one firefighters who were not deployed to the Tubbs Fire participated in the study as a comparison group. Although the study was limited by its late start, more immediate testing of responders has been conducted in more recent fires.
The department said the study is the first of its kind that they know of.
“We’re hoping that this study really starts the conversation and pushes for some change,” Nicholson said.
While this was not a health study and cannot determine anything about the health of the responders, Morello-Forsch said there is a nationwide effort to better characterize long-term health trends of chemical exposure among firefighters.
As soon as 2020, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will launch a national firefighter registry where active and retired firefighters can volunteer information that will track health incidents and trends in the firefighting community, including cancer.
Nicholson said firefighters are dying of cancer at a rate higher that has ever been seen nationwide.
“We need to do better,” she said.
According to Cal Fire, the Tubbs Fire burned 36,807 acres in Sonoma and Napa counties. It began on Oct. 8, 2017.