Female Firefighters Face Higher Levels of Exposure to Cancer-Linked PFAS Chemicals

Women firefighters are exposed to higher levels of certain toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals than women working in offices, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of California, San Francisco, and Silent Spring Institute. The study was published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals,” which don’t easily break down in the environment, have been linked to a variety of cancers and are known to interfere with immune function, endocrine function and breast development.

“Women firefighters actually raised concern about what they have perceived as elevated rates of breast cancer among their cohort in San Francisco,” said Jessica Trowbridge, a graduate student at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper in a press release. “As a team, we decided to conduct an exposure study looking at chemicals that are potential breast carcinogens.”

In this study, the researchers collected blood samples from 86 women firefighters and 84 women who work in offices in downtown San Francisco. They also conducted hour-long interviews with each participant where they queried each about workplace activities, eating habits and about their knowledge of PFAS exposure.

According to the results of the study, of the 12 types of PFAS chemicals the researchers tested for, seven were found in detectable amounts in most participants’ blood samples, and four were found at detectable amounts in all participants’ samples. Moreover, they observed that three PFAS – PFHxS, PFUnDA, and PFNA – were detected at significantly higher amounts in firefighters’ blood, compared to office workers’ blood. Subsequently, each subjected received a digital report detailing their individual results and providing information and concrete steps for reducing their PFAS exposure.

“We are here, and our health is important,” said Lt. Heather Buren, co-author of the study. “In many occupations, women are often overlooked and understudied. Firefighting is no different. The SFFD has more women firefighters than any other metropolitan fire department in the U.S. The strength in numbers, coupled with the continued and strong support from our administration and union, has allowed us to focus on the health of our women, which we hope will benefit all firefighters nationally.”