Research shows Ottawa firefighters absorb toxins through their skin
Published Wednesday, October 18, 2017 5:36PM EDT Last Updated Wednesday, October 18, 2017 6:46PM EDT
Ottawa firefighters are part of study that shows toxins in smoke are being absorbed through their skin.
That research could change how firefighters prepare themselves before a fire and how theyrespond after a fire.
We know there is a clear link between firefighting and the increased risk of cancer.
It's believed that link was the result of the toxins firefighters were breathing in.
Now, evidence suggests it's also what toxins they are taking in through their skin.
Thick black smoke billows from the Beacon Hill Motel in Ottawa in June of 2016, completely engulfing it in flames.
And in the middle of it all are dozens of Ottawa firefighters trying to contain the blaze. Studies have drawn a clear link between firefighting and cancer. It was thought that link was the result of the toxins firefighters were breathing in. Now, evidence suggests it's also the toxins called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAH) they are taking in through their skin.
“These PAH's are mutagenic, which affects us at cellular level,” says Deputy Chief Sean Tracey with Ottawa Fire Services, “and that's a major risk factor for causing cancers and multiple types of cancers.”
Over an 18 month period, researchers at the University of Ottawa collected urine and skin wipe samples from about 30 Ottawa firefighters and about a dozen administrative and office staff with Ottawa Fire, including Chief Tracey.
The firefighters were asked to provide the skin wipe samples before fighting a fire and right after. The results were astounding. They showed that these firefighters had 3 to 5 times the amount of toxic chemicals in their urine after a fire compared to before.
Dr. Jules Blais is a professor of Biology and environmental toxicology director at the University of Ottawa and the research team leader, “This suggested dermal exposure or contact by skin is the primary way firefighters are exposed to these substances,” he explains.
“If we can reduce contact to the skin, we can reduce exposure and hopefully reduce the onset of disease.”
Ottawa Fire Services has already changed its decontamination procedures, in part as a result of this research. Bunker gear is immediately bagged after each fire and laundered. And firefighters need to clean, too.
“We know that proper cleaning, doffing of the gear and showering with soap and water as quickly as possible after fire gives us the best protection currently,” says Chief Tracey.
Improving the bunker gear is tougher to do because it involves riding that balance between protecting firefighters from the fire but also from the toxins within. Ottawa Fire hopes to help lead the research in this area for firefighters around the globe.