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Cancer risk: Firefighters ingest highly toxic chemicals through skin contact


Pollutants from the smoke get into the body through the skin

Firefighters are subject to certain risks when they are in dangerous situations to help. They consciously accept these risks, but other threats have so far been completely unknown to them. According to the results of a recent study, this also includes the absorption of toxic chemicals that get into the body of firefighters via the skin.

The risks associated with a fire brigade deployment are extremely diverse, depending on the occasion. In addition to the acute dangers such as fire, explosions, smoke and collapsing parts of the building, there are also health risks that have so far largely remained undetected. This includes the absorption of toxic chemicals through the skin, according to a recent study by Canadian scientists at the University of Ottawa. The study was published in the journal "Environmental Science & Technology".

Respiratory masks sufficient to protect against PAHs?

Most firefighters are aware of the risks of inhaling toxic gases in smoke, but wearing a respirator makes them feel safe in this regard. A team of researchers at the University of Ottawa, in collaboration with the University of Toronto, Health Canada and the Institut national de santé publique du Québec, have now investigated whether this feeling of security is justified. They focused their investigation on so-called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are often present in smoke in high concentrations during fires.

Loads significantly increased after a fire

In 2015 and 2015, 27 firefighters from the "Ottawa Fire Service" were measured for PAH levels before and after deployments using wipe tests on the skin and examinations of urine (for PAH breakdown products). The firefighters had “three to more than five times as many metabolites or by-products of PAH in the urine after a fire as before the fire,” says study author Jennifer Keir from the University of Ottawa.

Increased risk of cancer in firefighters

According to the researchers, previous studies had already shown that firefighters are at an increased risk of cancer and other serious diseases compared to the general population. This is partly due to exposure to hazardous chemicals in the smoke. PAHs in particular are responsible for DNA mutations and cancer.

Absorption through the skin

The researchers unexpectedly found that there was a close correlation between PAH levels on the skin and the detection of metabolites in the urine. According to the scientists, this suggests that firefighters mainly ingest these chemicals through skin contact rather than inhalation. The study "shows how firefighters are exposed to harmful chemicals, which helps us find ways to reduce these exposures - and hopefully reduce the onset of disease," said Professor Jules Blais of the University of Ottawa, head of the research team.

According to Professor Blais, the study results show that a further reduction in pollutants for firefighters can best be achieved by reducing skin exposure. The scientists take it for granted that they wear breathing masks. However, the wearing of these masks - especially by firefighters who are not directly on the fire front but still get smoke - is often neglected in this country.

Better equipment needed?

The equipment used by the firefighters may need to be revised in order to prevent harmful substances being absorbed through the skin. The Federal Fire Service doctor Klaus Friedrich comes to a similar assessment. "The protective equipment of the firefighters has to be evaluated", Friedrich told Spiegel Online. So far, protection from heat rather than protection from chemicals in smoke has been a top priority. According to the Federal Fire Service doctor, clothing could still be a problem after an operation. This raises the question of whether further contamination may still occur on the way home in the fire engine. If necessary, it could make sense to change clothes quickly after use. (fp)

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