Ottawa University researcher Jennifer Keir and Captain Dave Matschke.
01 Feb 2018

Groundbreaking research 2018 shows firefighters absorb harmful chemicals through skin - despite full protection


A growing body of evidence has shown firefighters have an increased risk of cancer and other serious illnesses compared to the general population, partly due to their exposure to hazardous chemicals from the smoke. The toxins enter the body - despite using full turnout gear and breathing apparatus. 

READ MORE: US fire departments turning to Detox Saunas to fight off the cancer threat

READ MORE at CTIF NEWS: Firefighters up to three times higher risk of developing cancer

A groundbreaking Canadian study shows, among other things, that Ottawa firefighters had from three to more than five times the amount of toxic chemicals in their urine after a fire compared to before a fire.

Researchers at the University of Ottawa, including Jennifer Keir (R) didn't have to work hard to convince Ottawa firefighters to take part in a study looking at the toxic chemicals they are exposed to: firefighters know all too well the price they pay for that exposure. Captain Dave Matschke (L) is one of them.


Exposure through skin contact - despite bunker gear

Crucially, the study suggests the chemicals entered their bodies mainly through skin contact. Matschke was named co-author of the study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Wednesday.

Jennifer Keir, senior author of the study, said firefighters know well the risks of their exposure to chemicals, such as the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons researchers studied.

“Many of them know the alarming cancer rates (among firefighters) and know someone who has had cancer. It is a pretty common story in the fire service.” 

Like most firefighters, Ottawa Fire Capt. David Matschke has watched colleagues, including close friends, die from cancer.  Matschke, who also participated in the study as one the "guinea pigs",   called the research “a big step forward:”

"The evidence of absorption through the skin, particularly through the neck area", said Matschke, "will help with the development of practices and technology to reduce that exposure. The next step, he said, is to continue research to see what kinds of practices and equipment work best at reducing and limiting absorption through the skin. Such work is crucial at a time when new materials are making fires more toxic than ever."


Simple solution - Washing

The researchers collected samples of urine and wiped the skin and clothing of more than two dozen firefighters in Ottawa before and after they responded to fires in 2015 and 2016. On average, post-fire levels of PAH metabolites in urine were 2.9 to 5.3 times higher than pre-fire levels. The average urinary mutagenicity -- or the potential to cause genetic mutations -- increased 4.3-fold.

"There's a relationship between firefighters' urinary PAH metabolite levels and the levels of PAHs on their skin, which leads us to suspect that dermal contact may be an important route of exposure," says Jennifer Keir, an author on the study.

The researchers conclude that skin decontamination immediately after fighting a fire could be one way to help reduce firefighters' exposure to these potentially cancer-causing compounds.

The rules of de-contamination are simple, but nevertheless not always easy to follow in the heat of the moment. However, it is becoming more and more evident it is imperative to do so in order to stay healthy:

- Always use at least a filter mask when entering an area where there has been a fire

- Always use gloves, never leave any skins exposed.

- Get a college to hose you down with water before you take any of your gear off

- Get help taking your gloves off, and put on surgical gloves before handling any of your turnout gear

- Wash all gear after each operation involving fire, or aftermaths of a fire.  Put all fabrics in a garbage bag before sending to wash, to avoid spreading contaminants in the fire engine or at the station.

- Clean your mask, tubes and helmet with a brush in soapy water

- Always finish with a shower to wash the skin of any remaining particles. Use cool water initially, so that the pours of your skin remain closed.


Canada recognizes cancer among firefighters as Work Related Injury

The Canadian Province of Ontario introduced so-called presumptive legislation in 2007 to address the reality of firefighters and cancer — the onus was no longer on firefighters and investigators to prove their cancer was work related, but assumed to be. The province initially included eight forms of cancer on that list and has since expanded it.


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Published by Bjorn Ulfsson, CTIF Communications Group


Article by Elizabeth Payne, Ottawa Citizen. Read full article here:

Photo provided by University of Ottawa.

Video: Lecture by Umme S.Akhtar, Phd, and candidate Jennifer Keir, University of Ottawa, recorded at the International Fire Instructors Workshop IFIW - Ottawa, June 2016, video recording by Björn Ulfsson & Terri Casella @ BT Video Productions.