“Firefighters are exposed to toxic environments when they go into burning structures, with chemicals entering the body through multiple routes, including inhalation and skin absorption,” says Calvillo, who graduated in 2018 from the occupational hygiene master’s program in environmental health. He is the lead author on the study.
“When structure fires occur, furnishings and other synthetic household materials emit toxic fumes and have the potential to lead to serious health impacts,” says Tiina Reponen, PhD, professor of environmental health. “Known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, these chemicals are released when materials burn, and several are considered to be cancer-causing. This kind of exposure puts (firefighters) at higher risk for cancer, and this is becoming more well-documented in recent years.”
Reponen is also director of UC’s Education and Research Center (ERC), one of the university’s longest-running grants that supports training and research in the fields of occupational health and safety. The work of the ERC encompasses students and faculty from three UC colleges and has spent the past several years with a focus on various work-related exposures among firefighters, such as heat stress, ultrafine particles and PAHs.
“Since there has been a lot of publicity about the increased risk of cancer, I think many fire departments want to clean their gear after fires, but we don’t really know how well it works,” says Reponen.
Kenny Schroeder, a lieutenant and medic with the Independence Fire District in Northern Kentucky, had similar concerns. After attending a conference on firefighters and cancer risk, presented by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, which also cited UC’s 2006 research, he also wanted to incorporate proper decontamination methods for his department. He contacted UC and was eventually connected with Calvillo to participate in the study.