Women Firefighters Exposed to High Levels of PFAS from Firefighting Foams

Published on February 26, 2020 by Sandy Liebhard

San Francisco’s female firefighters are being exposed to higher levels of toxic PFAS than women who work in the city’s office buildings, according a to new study just published online at Environmental Science and Technology.

“Women firefighters actually raised concern about what they have perceived as elevated rates of breast cancer among their cohort in San Francisco,” Jessica Trowbridge, a graduate student at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper, said in a statement announcing the findings.  “As a team, we decided to conduct an exposure study looking at chemicals that are potential breast carcinogens.”

Firefighting Foam Cancer Research Has Focused on Men

Perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are manmade chemicals used in everything from stain retardant fabrics and Teflon cookware to food packaging and cleaning products. These  “forever chemicals” don’t break down in the environment or the human body, and are known to interfere with immune function, endocrine function and breast development.

PFAS are also used to manufacture aqueous film-forming firefighting foams. While studies are beginning to document higher rates of cancer among firefighters exposed to PFAS in firefighting foams, the research has largely focused on men.

“This is the first study, to our knowledge, that’s been done on women firefighters,” said Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of public health and of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley and senior author of the paper. “The idea of characterizing women’s workplace exposures is something that few people are paying any attention to, and here, we are using the newest available technologies to start to do that.”

What the Study Found

San Francisco apparently has a higher number of women firefighters than any other city in the United States.

For this study, the research team collected blood samples from 86 women firefighters and 84 women who work in offices in downtown San Francisco. They also conducted hour-long interviews with each participant, asking about workplace activities, eating habits and consumer product use to tease out possible sources of PFAS exposure.

Of the 12 types of PFAS chemicals the researchers tested for, seven were found in detectable amounts in most participants’ blood samples, and four were found at detectable amounts in all participants’ samples. Three of the seven — PFHxS, PFUnDA, and PFNA — were detected at significantly higher amounts in firefighters’ blood, compared to office workers’ blood.

About the Women Firefighter Biomonitoring Collaborative

The findings are among the first  published results from the Women Firefighter Biomonitoring Collaborative, a long-term investigation into the chemical exposures faced by women firefighters. The collaborative was launched after Lt. Heather Buren, along with colleagues form the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation (SFFCPF), discovered that five of the department’s female firefighters had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 alone.

“We started asking questions, wondering what was up,” said Buren, co-author of the paper. “Cancer wasn’t new to our profession, but for the first time, I was thinking about cancer as an occupational disease: Was fighting fire somehow a contributing factor in my friends getting sick?  Were our repeated exposures to toxic burning chemicals on the fire ground a factor to the high breast cancer rates among SFFD women firefighters?”

Other partners in this collaboration include the United Fire Service Women, Commonweal, and Breast Cancer Prevention Partners.

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