On Saturday, Aug. 17, Caroline Smith, a professor of exercise science at Appalachian State University, and her assistants were onsite at a controlled burn where local fire departments were participating in fire training. However, they weren’t there to gear up or simply watch the training.
They were there to gather samples and readings from the firefighters themselves regarding polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. PAHs are formed during the incomplete burning of a fuel source, such as coal, oil and gas and garbage, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
“At present we are investigating routes of exposure, including taking samples from the subjects and their clothing,” Smith said. “We are not currently looking at the clothing itself, just if the chemicals are present inside and out.”
ASU is focussing more specifically on the field research, such as the controlled burn exercise, where readings and samples can be collected immediately after firefighters complete their training that exposes them to these carcinogens.
Similar studies done in the past have shown that “some studies have shown that the carcinogenic fumes are in the breath of firefighters, on their skin, in their blood and in their urine,” Smith said. “Despite wearing all of the gear, there is a greater chance of firefighters developing cancer of many types when compared to the general public.”
In fact, a study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and published by the National Fire Protection Association, firefighters are 9 percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and 14 percent more likely to fall victim to cancer-related deaths.
“There’s a lot of concern about cancer,” said Lonnie Propst, a battalion chief at Boone Fire. “The smoke is one thing, but there’s a lot of danger that comes with the gear.”
The firefighters were just as excited about the research as the team was, volunteering to be a part of the research. Propst mentioned that the results of the research could lead to new technology that keeps firefighters safer while they serve the community.
Smith’s team at ASU consists of Scott Collier, Erin Bouldin, Killian Wustrow, Madeline Miller, Noah DenHartog, Bill Moore and Cate Trate.
This research is being conducted in collaboration with North Carolina State University, and specifically the Wilson College of Textiles’ Emiel DenHartog and Nelson Vinueza, who are conducting analysis of the samples and collaborating on the design of the study.