FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | February 26, 2020

Comparing PFAS exposures in female firefighters and office workers

Exposure to Perfluoroalkyl Substances in a Cohort of Women Firefighters and Office Workers in San Francisco
Environmental Science & Technology

Firefighters have higher rates of some cancers than the general population, which might not be surprising given the many potential carcinogens they encounter while battling blazes. However, previous studies of chemical exposures in this occupation have focused almost exclusively on men. Now, researchers reporting in ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology have compared poly- and perfluorinated substances (PFAS) in the serum of female firefighters and female office workers, finding higher levels of three compounds in the firefighters.

Manufacturers apply PFAS to many consumer products, such as fabrics, furniture and food containers, to make the items stain-, water- and grease-resistant. Firefighters likely have additional exposures through their equipment, including PFAS-containing protective gear and firefighting foam. Particularly relevant to women firefighters, some PFAS are endocrine disruptors that affect mammary gland development, possibly impairing lactation or increasing susceptibility to breast cancer. To find out if women firefighters are exposed to elevated levels of these substances, Rachel Morello-Frosch and colleagues with the Women Firefighters Biomonitoring Collaborative compared serum levels of PFAS in female firefighters and female office workers.

The researchers collected blood serum samples from 86 women firefighters and 84 female office workers in San Francisco. The team analyzed levels of 12 different PFAS in the samples using liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry. They detected a total of eight PFAS in the samples, four of which were present in all study participants. Firefighters had modestly higher levels (up to twice as much) of three compounds –– PFNA, PFUnDA and PFHxS –– in their serum than office workers. Among firefighters, those who reported using firefighting foam in the year prior to sample collection had higher PFAS concentrations than those who had not. These results could help guide efforts to reduce workplace exposure to PFAS in female firefighters, the researchers say.

The authors acknowledge funding from the California Breast Cancer Research Program, the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, the International Association of Firefighters Local 798, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Targeted Research Training Program, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Northern California Center for Occupational and Environmental Health.

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