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Maine Firefighters' Toxic Exposure to be Subject of Study
10/07/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

It's national fire-prevention week this week - a fitting time, perhaps, to reflect on the nation's firefighters who have died in the line of duty. But fire is not the only danger they face when they go to work. Dr. Susan Shaw says recent data show firefighters are at increased risk of developing a variety of cancers, including non-Hodgkins lymphoma, testicular and prostate cancer. Shaw is president of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, based in Blue Hill. Earlier this year she carried out a pilot study of San Francisco firefighters and found unusually high levels of flame-retardant chemicals in their blood. She's now preparing to embark on a more in-depth 15-year study of firefighters in Maine, examining the long-term health effects of exposure to these particular chemicals. Shaw spoke with Maine Things Considered host Tom Porter.

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Originally Aired: 10/7/2013 5:30 PM
Maine Firefighters' Toxic Exposure to be Subject o Listen

Dr. Susan Shaw

Dr. Shaw (left) says recent research has found flame retardant chemicals to be much more toxic than originally thought.

Dr. Susan Shaw: "The evidence has mounted about how toxic they are. They not only are endocrine disruptors but they're also carcinogens that are in our furniture, and the benefit of them does not outweight the risk. And there's a general consensus now in the scientific community that they're so toxic and they break down over time, become part of the environment they we all breathe. But when firefighters go in to respond to a fire, these chemicals, when they burn, produce terribly toxic and carginogenic compounds through the combustion. The benefit they do have is to give about three seconds of extra escape time, compared to thousands of times higher levels of carcinogens."

Tom Porter: "Now, the American Chemistry Council has defended flame retardants, pointing out that fires in homes decreased dramatically in the last few decades, largely because of the prevalence of flame retardants. In other words they're important for home safety."

Dr. Susan Shaw: "The data does not support the ACA's position on this whatsoever. And three seconds of escape time is not even well-documented, and it does not compare to the amount of hazard that's caused by these compounds. So there's now a lot of effort to replace those toxic compounds with safer alternatives. The firefighters are at the very end of the spectrum - when they are exposed to the compounds, they have extremely high exposure to the worst chemicals, the most carcinogenic chemicals, and they have high rates of many types of cancer."

Tom Porter: "And the pilot study you did a few months ago in San Francisco basically found high levels of these flame retardants in the blood of the firefighters you analyzed?"

Dr. Susan Shaw: "That's correct, we did a study of 12 firefighters in San Francisco. We took the blood right after a fire event. They had three times higher levels of the flame retardant, the polybrominated dyphenyl ethers, which are very commonly-used flame retardants in furniture, foam and plastics, and many, many products in the home. So those levels were much higher, but also this is the first study to look at the dioxins and purines produced when those flame retardants are burned."

Tom Porter: "You're talking about the Maine study that you're launching now?"

Dr. Susan Shaw: "OK, yes. Building on the California results, we're launching a much more in-depth study in Maine firefighters. We're going to analyze the blood of 50 Maine firefighters after a fire event to look at a wide range of toxic carcinogenic chemicals in the blood, as well as pre-cancer and cancer indicators. This will be first study of its kind. It will be the first time that a very comprehensive exposure assessment is done. But also we are attempting to link that exposure to health outcomes. We will retest the participants at five, 10 and 15 years to determine long-term health outcomes, including cancer."

Dr. Susan Shaw, of the Blue Hill-based Marine Environmental Research Institute, begins her 15-year study on Maine firefighters next year.


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