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NJ researchers find high levels of PFAS in blood of volunteer firefighters

The researchers also found that having more years of firefighting experience was associated with higher PFAS levels

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By Laura French

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — A recent study by New Jersey researchers found that volunteer firefighters have a higher level of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their blood than the general public.

According to a Rutgers University news release, the study is the first to evaluate volunteer firefighters’ exposure to PFAS. The study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Rutgers researchers surveyed 135 members of volunteer fire departments in New Jersey on their lifestyle and cancer risk factors and compared traces of nine PFAS chemicals in their blood against levels recorded in the general population. Data from the general population came from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which tracks the health status of a nationally representative sample of 5,000 people annually.

Researchers found that levels of two of the chemicals studied — perfluorododecanoic acid (PFDoA) and perfluorodecanoic acid (PFDA) — were higher in volunteer firefighters than in the general population. Lead author Judith Graber, an associate professor at Rutgers School of Public Health and a faculty member at the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, noted that PFDoA levels were found in 80% of the firefighters despite being uncommon in the general population.

The study also showed that higher PFAS levels were associated with the number of years of firefighting experience, with the average firefighter participant in the study having 20 years of experience. Graber noted the possibility that volunteer firefighters may accumulate more exposures to PFAS than career firefighters due to always being on call.

Previous research has shown PFAS to be associated with a number of health conditions that impact firefighters, including cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to Rutgers.

“The number one risk of a firefighter is being protected from the fire. The chemicals used in fire suppression foam and the protective clothing firefighters use came out 40 years ago when people thought they were safe, and they work well for what they are intended to do,” Graber said in a statement. “Further research is needed to better understand the sources of these chemicals and to design effective foam and protective clothing that do not use these chemicals.”