AUGUSTA — Frank Ober, a former firefighter and now a selectman in Whitefield, said he remembers when having the dirtiest turnout suit after a fire was a point of pride for firefighters.
The times have changed, and research now shows firefighters are at a greater risk of developing cancer because of exposure to toxic chemicals while fighting fires.
A recently published study of firefighters in California from Dr. Susan Shaw, an environmental scientist based in Blue Hill, found higher levels of chemicals from commercial flame retardants and other household materials than expected, increasing firefighters’ risk of developing cancer later in life.
Showing the actual health outcomes of the chemical exposure, however, is the goal of a new 15-year study Shaw presented Thursday morning to Ober, other municipal officials and firefighters and fire chiefs from across the state at the annual meeting of the Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association at the Augusta Civic Center.
The meeting was part of the annual Maine Municipal Association Convention held Wednesday and Thursday.
Shaw, founder and president of the Blue Hill-based Marine Environmental Research Institute, said the study will follow 50 Maine firefighters over a 15-year period, analyzing their blood after fires to determine the levels of chemicals and cancer indicators.
The California study found two to three times higher levels of chemicals from flame retardants — polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs — than most of the population.
The high levels of toxic chemicals place firefighters at a higher risk, but the longer-term study will try to identify the chemicals that factor in the development of cancer. Shaw said the study is the first of its kind.
“Exposure has not been adequately assessed in firefighters, and the relationship between firefighter and cancer risk is not well understood,” she said, “so the research we’re going to do here in Maine will be a model for future studies.”
She said some chemicals have been phased out of production, and several states, including Maine, have banned some types of flame retardants. Yet the chemicals still are commonly found in homes in plastics, foam, furniture, carpets, mattresses, TVs and computers.
Shaw said the flame retardants have been shown to save only a few seconds of ignition time; but when burned, they produce twice as much smoke, 13 times as much toxic carbon monoxide and thousands times more soot.
The Maine study is in the planning phase, Shaw said, but it’s set to begin next year. The firefighters haven’t been chosen yet, and the study probably will select them from larger departments, she said.
Firefighters participating in the study will learn of their blood results but will have the option of whether they want them shared, Shaw said. As in the California study, the firefighters’ names will remain confidential.
Shaw told the audience that in order to reduce the risk of exposure, fire departments should decontaminate gear after each fire; enforce the wearing of air-packs, even after the fire has been put out; not allow firefighters to take dirty gear home; regularly clean the interior of trucks; and have spare turnout suits to use when the others are being cleaned.
Augusta Fire Department Chief Roger Audette, who attended the presentation, said his department took steps in the last two years to reduce the risk for its firefighters by purchasing gas meters and ensuring the air is safe before allowing firefighters to take off their air-packs.
The department also has washing machines on site for the firefighters’ gear. Audette said now it’s common for newly built fire stations to have separate rooms to store suits and equipment between calls, a contrast to the prior practice, and current practice in other fire departments, of air-drying turnout suits in the station.
“It’s a big change,” he said.
Paul Koenig — 621-5663