Tucson firefighters participated in early research on chemical exposure done by the University of Arizona. - Photo courtesy of Tucson Fire Department.

Tucson firefighters participated in early research on chemical exposure done by the University of Arizona.

Photo courtesy of Tucson Fire Department.

New procedures for handling bunker gear after fires helped reduce the amount of hazardous chemicals found in the urine of firefighters, research by the University of Arizona Health Sciences shows.

Jeffrey Burgess, associate dean of research and professor at the university’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, conducted a five-year study on occupational exposures among firefighters in collaboration with the Tucson Fire Department.

“Washing dirty gear right away, or ‘wash downs,’ immediately after leaving a fire scene, making sure dirty gear is bagged so other people are not exposed to it, and taking a shower as soon as they get back to the station, substantially reduces the amount of chemicals in their urine showing the interventions are effective,” Burgess said.

To continue their research the University of Arizona recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The focus of the new research will be exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, a group of synthetic, fluorinated chemicals used in manufacturing firefighting foams.

“Firefighters need more information to develop best-practice recommendations to reduce their exposure to PFAS and prevent the associated toxic effects,” Burgess said.

PFAS can be found in a wide range of consumer products people use every day, such as upholstery, insulation, electronics, cleaning products, pizza boxes, fabrics and non-stick cookware. Some older generation PFAS may stay in the human body for long periods, resulting in the nickname “forever chemicals.”

Newer-generation PFAS generally stay in the body for a shorter period. Still, little is known about their toxicity to humans which has been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, immune suppression, elevated cholesterol, respiratory disease and decreased fertility.

By testing the blood and urine of firefighters participating in the new study, researcher will be able to measure and compare how much of the old and new PFAS is absorbed into their bodies. The new study also aims to identify the most important PFAS exposure routes and compare the practices for limiting exposure in different airport fire departments.

Burgess will work with researchers from the University of Miami and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, building on the previous joint research project, the Fire Fighter Cancer Cohort Study, also funded by FEMA, according to FFCCS data coordinator Alberto Caban-Martinez, assistant professor of public health sciences at the University of Miami.

“These new research funds from FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant program not only will support our national FFCCS team in assessing firefighter exposure to PFAS through multiple exposure pathways, but also administer a national survey instrument assessing (aqueous film forming foam) products and uses,” Caban-Martinez said.