A new peer-reviewed study published recently in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology highlighting Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) content in fire station dust. The study was conducted in 15 fire stations throughout Massachusetts, including Boston. The result of this dust study provides further evidence and credibility to a fire gear PFAS content study published last year by Dr. Graham Peaslee of Notre Dame in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
If you’re just catching up with this topic; Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, is a class of chemicals, described as “forever chemicals”, which never fully breakdown in the environment ultimately contaminating water sources and the food chain. These chemicals have been found in Aqueous Film-Forming Foams (AFFF) and recently measured at very high levels in fire turnout gear. The United States armed forces has been investigating PFAS water table contamination at military bases through the United States related to firefighting activities which appear to be causing cancer clusters.
The health science surrounding PFAS exposure appears clear at times but also fuzzy in some areas. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animal studies. The most consistent findings from human epidemiology studies are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to:
- infant birth weights,
- effects on the immune system,
- cancer (for PFOA), and
- thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS).”
When you take a step back and look at the types of cancers surrounding PFAS exposure they appear to eerily mimic the types of cancers Firefighters are prone, to include immunosuppression. Aside from PFAS exposure in a Firefighter’s workday, we also face disrupted circadian rhythm, shocks and strains on our cardiovascular systems, poor diet at times, and more. Our work environment creates a mingling or an amalgamation of factors that lead to a cancer diagnosis. A well-known study in our fire service circle published out of Boston recognized that 68% of Boston Firefighters face a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime.
This fire station dust study was written by an exposure scientist for other exposure scientists, which makes for a difficult read. The dirty breakdown of dust sample test results are both shocking in some areas and validating in others. Dust and gear wipe samples were taken from 15 different career fire stations in Massachusetts, 8 of those stations in Boston. 89 dust samples were collected from different room types. A total of twenty-four variants of PFAS were found in fire station dust which tightly correlated to the areas where fire gear is stored. A wipe test was also conducted on the fire gear hanging in gear storage rooms. The concentration of PFAS in the dust was found to be an extremely elevated amount. The PFAS variants found in the fire gear wipe tests matched the variants found in the dust. This result validates that PFAS does shed from the textile into the environment as mentioned in last year’s study published (here) by Dr. Graham Peaslee of Notre Dame. Dr. Peaslee had discovered alarming amounts of PFAS in fire gear and feared there may be a route of exposure for firefighters as he suspected it likely sheds from the gear.
Similar to the gear storage areas, dust samples were taken in fire station day rooms. PFAS were also found in the day room dust, however, they were mostly different variants of PFAS with lesser concentrations. There were no samples of dust collected that DIDN’T have PFAS in it. While dust may appear to be a harmless source of exposure it’s not nothing. PFAS dust in the air can be inhaled or ingested. Will that occur in concentrations that can harm your body? It’s not known. I don’t see firefighters sampling teaspoons of fire station dust but this study does highlight that it comes off the gear and into our living environments. The bigger question remains, does it break down and off-gas from the gear during firefighting operations and can that be absorbed through a firefighter’s skin. There are two other studies due out this year one involving PFAS turnout gear concentration which will mimic or validate Dr. Peaslee’s research and a skin absorption study to see if PFAS can be absorbed through open pores in a sweaty firefighter.