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Strong Correlation Between Tubbs Fire Firefighters and Higher Chemical Exposure, Study Shows

By Ilene Eng

SAN FRANCISCO—Experts announced July 9 that some of the firefighters who fought the Tubbs Fire in 2017 have relatively higher levels of mercury in their blood.

The study, by the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, examined 180 firefighters; 149 of whom were deployed to the Tubbs Fire, and 31 of whom were not. Of the 149 who were sent out, 10 were found to have elevated levels of mercury.

CalFire firefighters monitor a firing operation as they battle the Tubbs Fire on October 12, 2017 near Calistoga, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“You’re putting out a fire, you’re surrounded by the smoke, the smoke gets all over you. And you take that back to the station or you take that back to the campsite wherever you are and you’re out there for two weeks, you’re not showering, it’s going into your system, you’re breathing it,” said Joe Alioto Veronese, San Francisco Fire Commissioner.

Another chemical they found was polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, commonly found in packaging and stain- and water-resistant fabrics.

“It’s also used in firefighting foams for fire suppression activities. So that’s why we were interested in that particular chemical,” said UC Berkeley environmental health scientist Rachel Morello-Frosch, the principal investigator for the study.

She also said they cannot be sure these elevated concentrations are due to the Tubbs Fire itself, as exposure can come from anywhere. “That’s one of the challenges when we measure chemicals in people’s bodies. We find the presence of the chemical, we can compare the levels, but those chemicals don’t necessarily leave a calling card and tell us where it came from,” she said.

They all agreed that these firefighters need more protective equipment.

According to Anthony Stefani, president of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation and retired captain of the San Francisco Fire Department, the firefighters didn’t wear the same protective gear that they would normally wear in structural fires because they need to move quickly in wild-land fires.

“You cannot do that with a 30, 40 pound tank of air on your back as well as 40 pounds of equipment on your pants and in a turnout jacket,” said Stefani.

So far, those exposed to the high levels of chemicals do not show side effects, nor signs of cancer.

Meanwhile they are looking into the available technology, decontamination policies, and funds to help pay for better equipment.