Health & Medicine

Concern grows in firefighters, others after cancer-causing flame retardants found in test subjects

San Francisco firefighters Casey McElheney and Karen Heald with their German short-haired pointer puppies Raven and Nahiku at their home in Davis,  are sitting on a couch with flame retardant chemicals.
San Francisco firefighters Casey McElheney and Karen Heald with their German short-haired pointer puppies Raven and Nahiku at their home in Davis, are sitting on a couch with flame retardant chemicals.

A growing body of evidence found an array of flame-retardant chemicals – many which are carcinogenic – in test participants, a potential health concern for firefighters and others exposed to the chemicals.

The most recent study on flame-retardant chemicals, released in October, found the flame-retardant chemical chlorinated Tris in the blood and urine of all but one of the 16 nonsmoking adults tested in the study.

The Bay Area-focused study is seen as key because it tested for a group of phosphate flame retardants that, until now, have largely flown under the radar compared to research on the banned flame retardants known as PBDEs.

The results suggest the home environment is a major exposure area because those with the highest level of carcinogenic flame retardants in their urine also had high concentrations of the retardant in dust in their home. Over time, flame retardants in furniture and bedding are released from the foam and attach to household dust, experts said.

The findings in the studies deeply concern firefighters who encounter the chemicals when battling residential blazes.

“Flame retardant may be the lead of the 21st century,” said Brian Rice, former deputy fire chief with the Sacramento Metro Fire District and president of Sacramento Area Firefighters Union Local 522. Rice started fighting fires in the 1980s. “I’m 55 and I feel like it is not a matter of if I will get cancer, but when.”

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by the Silent Spring Institute, is also the first to find evidence of the carcinogenic flame retardant TCEP, said lead author Robin Dodson. It was found in 75 percent of those tested, she said.

Evidence of chlorinated Tris is seen as especially problematic. The chemical was used to treat children’s pajamas, but its use for that purpose was discontinued in the 1970s after it was determined that it caused DNA mutations and posed a cancer risk. Since then, the chemical has been used to treat furniture foam and other items. It has been listed as a possible carcinogenic under California’s Proposition 65.

A recent study of 29,000 U.S. career firefighters employed since 1950, and followed through 2009, found that firefighters are at higher risk for developing certain cancers – like bone marrow and testicular cancers, as well as brain tumors.

The results of the Silent Spring study were no surprise to 61-year-old Karen Heald, a Davis resident and firefighter for the San Francisco Fire Department.

Most of the chemicals she absorbs come through the skin when firefighting, Heald said. Sometimes, she’s breathing the off-gassing of chemicals after a fire.

During most fires, firefighters wear a self-contained breathing apparatus that protects them from inhaling toxic chemicals. Once fires are under control, firefighters begin a process called “overhaul” – which involves tearing walls and framing apart to prevent fires from reigniting. Until recently, firefighters in many departments were not required to wear an apparatus during that process.

Heald’s exposure does not end at the fire station. She owns a sofa that she bought in California which has cushion treated with flame retardant.

“If these chemicals are being released in a non-burning environment, think how much greater the exposure is in a burning environment,” said Heald. “These chemicals are not bound to cushions, they’re actively released and we’re breathing them.”

Like many firefighters, Heald believes the flame retardants are not necessary.

“In a fire, furniture fabric is the first substance to ignite,” she said. “As it begins to burn, the flames become much larger and intense than the retardant in furniture foam is designed to handle.”

However, the chemical industry sees flame retardants as a crucial tool in stopping fires as well as meeting the state’s flammability standard, which requires that foam material withstand a flame for 12 seconds without catching fire.

“These chemistries can provide valuable escape time and potentially save lives,” said Bryan Goodman, spokesman for the American Chemistry Council. “While the statistics show that fires are still a threat, there have been significant gains over the decades since many of the progressive fire safety regulations were enacted.

A National Fire Protection Association annual survey of fire department responses indicate that reported home fires and related deaths have fallen by about 50 percent since 1980, Goodman said.

Furniture makers have the option of selling furniture without added flame retardants as a result of Gov. Jerry Brown’s revision to the state’s 1975 furniture flammability standard, called TB 117. The new standard, called TB117-2013, replaces an open flame test for upholstered furniture with a smolder test. The new standard can be met without the use of flame-retardant chemicals.

Furniture that meets the new requirement will have a “TB 117-2013” tag on it. However the law does not prohibit the use of the chemicals.

“The new study should motivate consumers to ask for furniture without flame retardants when they buy new furniture and to wash their hands and keep dust levels at home low to reduce exposure,” said Heald.

Initially, few firefighters gave much thought to the exposure to women at fires or what they were passing on to their children, especially during breastfeeding, Rice said.

Fire departments, like the Sacramento Fire Department, have a protocol that puts pregnant firefighters on light duty. There is no light duty requirement for firefighters who are breastfeeding, said Roberto Padilla, spokesman for the Sacramento Fire Department.

“Compared to adults, infants and young children have higher exposure to flame-retardant chemicals due to placental transfer while in the womb, breast milk ingestion, and hand-to-mouth behavior,” said Arlene Blum, co-founder of the Green Science Policy Institute. Blum was instrumental in getting flame retardants removed from children’s pajamas in the late 1970s.

Some flame retardants escape from household products and settle in home dust. Toddlers, who play on the floor and put things in their mouths, are believed to be at higher risk for flame-retardant exposure, she said.

Davis Fire Department Capt. Emily Lo has worked 24 years for the department, and has children ages 7 and 4.

Believing flame retardants pose a threat to her and her family, “I make a conscious effort to not bring work clothing home,” said Lo.

Lo said that she breast-fed her two children when they were infants and she was working. At times, she would have to stop in the middle of feeding due to fires.

She said she has never been tested for fire retardants in her system.

“Upon returning, I did clean myself the best I could before returning to feeding my kids,” Lo said. “Had I known more about the risks, I most likely would have taken a shower before feeding.”

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.