California to test firefighters’ toxic exposure
Thursday, November 16, 2017
Now that the ash is settling after the California wildfires that engulfed more than 8,000 homes, buildings and businesses — including many in wine country — we turn to the important issue of recovery and rebuilding. Amid the loss of human life, $3 billion in property damage and the rampant dismantlement of neighborhood infrastructures, there is another looming issue: civilian and first responder public health.
The general trauma of the fires is almost indescribable, especially considering the magnitude of these compared with previous large-scale blazes. These fast-spreading 100 mile-wide wildfires certainly made terms like "Airpocalypse" and "Airmageddon" relevant all the way to the San Francisco Bay Area. Now there's a great need for health assessments and treatments — especially for children, the elderly and the infirmed.
Besides direct victims, there's not a group closer to the fires than the first responders. This is why a union-supported University of California study, using $100,000 from the nonprofit San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, will begin testing up to 200 San Francisco, Santa Clara and North Bay firefighters.
In the research, 25 firefighters who did not participate in fighting recent fires will serve as a control group, and California's Departments of Public Health and Toxic Substances Control is offering testing support and lab services. About 11,000 firefighters were called to duty in the North Bay, but right now it is financially unfeasible to test everyone.
The Cancer Prevention Foundation was founded in 2006, and about 250 San Francisco firefighters have died from cancer since then. This should come as no surprise if you are aware of the kinds of chemicals that first responders are exposed to on duty. For example, toxic heavy metal traces of arsenic, copper, cadmium, and lead were found in a study of a 2008 California wildfire.
Not only will updated studies help those exposed to toxic metal conditions, but it will also expand our understanding of the increased public health threat that climate change causes as fires grow larger, more common and more difficult to contain.
Much attention has been paid to the issue of first responders' toxic chemical exposure. 9/11 first responder health has been in the news, as the 164th Fire Department of New York fighter has recently succumbed to colon cancer from Ground Zero chemicals.
Three years ago, the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation called attention to toxic chemicals on the job by asking for stricter regulations of chemicals and flame retardants that add to the "toxic soup of burning chemicals and their byproducts, including dioxins, furans and formaldehyde."
This addresses the average house fire, but then we must include the massive chemical release in wildfires as the house-emitted chemicals become neighborhood-emitted chemicals from plastics, cars and other debris. And the effects are bio-accumulative; they gather in one's system over time — hence the cancer link.
This latest California study follows up an October 2014 National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health that found increased levels of kidney, multiple myeloma, prostate and other cancers in 30,000 firefighters from Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco. The study took place between 1950 and 2009, and postulates "direct links" between occupational exposure to toxins and cancer.
Already the accumulated numbers have occupational organizations, medical workers and public health advocates and officials on alert. A recent article undeniably cites cancer as the "biggest killer of America's firefighters." Congress may even approve a National Firefighter Cancer Registry to track cancer deaths.
Delving into this most recent population will increase policy options in this national epidemic, and possibly offer individuals treatment options. The study is taking volunteers now, and more information can be found on the Foundation's Facebook page.
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