A team of researchers have used simple silicone wristbands to analyse firefighters' exposure to harmful chemicals while on duty, which will potentially decrease their vulnerability to cancerous diseases.
“Firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general US population,” according to research by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)/ National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH).
New research by scientists at Duke University offers doctors and public health officials an inexpensive way to track firefighters’ exposures to carcinogenic chemicals and to determine where and when the highest risks lie.
The inexpensive tool in question? Not a smart watch, nor a smart wristband – but a regular silicone wristband that can be purchased in bulk with the cost of $1 per piece.
“It turns out that ordinary silicone wristbands, like the ones sold in stores, absorb the semi-volatile organic compounds you’re exposed to while you’re out in the world,” says Jessica Levasseur, a PhD student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who led the study.
“It’s like taking fingerprints of everywhere you’ve been and everything you’ve been exposed to,” Levasseur adds.
The study materialised when the Durham Fire Department in North Carolina asked Duke researchers for assistance. The fire department wanted to know what kind of exposure risks its firefighters could come across, and the researchers settled on silicone bands as a useful solution.
“Firefighters have high cancer rates compared to the general population, but we don’t know why,” Levasseur points out.
”Is it caused by exposure to one chemical or a mix of them? Is it something they breathe in while working in fires or being near them? Or something else? There are lots of risk factors and potential routes of exposure, and we wanted to see if silicone wristbands could be a practical tool for disentangling them.”
Levasseur and the other scientists recruited 20 firefighters and requested them to wear the silicone wristbands on days when they worked (six-day shifts) and separate wristbands on days when they were off.
Then they analysed the silicone wristbands for 134 different chemical compounds which have been linked to increased incidence of certain cancers, including phthalates, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), organophosphate esters (OPEs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
“Seventy-one of these chemicals — including seven PFAS, which to our knowledge have never previously been detected using wristbands — were found in at least half of the bands,” Levasseur says.
The study also revealed that “exposures to flame retardants and PAHs were associated with firefighting,” as the researchers wrote in the highlights of the study.
“PFAS were measured at lower concentrations overall, but firefighter PFOS exposures while on-duty and responding to fires were 2.5 times higher than off-duty exposures,” the authors wrote.
“Exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), BFRs, and some OPEs were occupationally associated, with firefighters experiencing 0.5 to 8.5 times higher exposure while on-duty as compared to off-duty. PAH exposures were also higher for firefighters who responded to a fire than those who did not while on-duty.”
This research demonstrates that exposure to these chemical compounds is higher in firefighters than in adults performing other jobs, even when the firefighters did not actively respond to a fire while on duty.
On the other hand, wristbands worn on off-duty days contained higher levels of phthalates (“often used in personal care products or scented products”) and pesticides. The scientists wrote in the study that “being a firefighter does not generally increase exposure to phthalates.”
“This research is the first to demonstrate that silicone wristbands can be used to quantify occupational exposure in firefighters and distinguish exposures that may be related to fire events versus other sources,” Levasseur says.
“Conducting follow-up research with a larger population will help pinpoint the exposure sources that contribute to firefighters' risk for cancer and assess exposure risks that may be related to chemicals off-gassing from their gear or materials in their firehouse, which we did not examine,” she adds.
The research was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.