About 85 Sonoma County firefighters will undergo limited health screenings for a study of first responders’ exposure to toxins during last month’s destructive fires, which produced noxious, throat-burning smoke that darkened North Bay skies for days.
Blood and urine samples are to be collected from a total 175 firefighters from across the wider Bay Area who battled the wildfires in Sonoma County and neighboring communities.
The hastily organized research project is being funded by the 10-year-old San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, which committed $100,000 to the cause, board member and San Francisco firefighter Adam Wood said.
Twenty-five firefighters who were not dispatched to the fires will be tested for the purpose of comparison, organizers said.
Researchers will be looking for evidence of heavy metals, like arsenic and chromium, organic pollutants, such as dioxins, and other toxic byproducts of burning materials, according to UC Berkeley Environmental Science Professor Rachel Morello-Frosch, who is leading the research.
Firefighters already are at significantly greater risk than the general public of developing certain cancers, according to health experts. Studies indicate they may absorb carcinogens and other toxins through their skin and clothes and hand-to-mouth ingestion, in addition to breathing smoke.
“Firefighters are on the front lines of these major wildfire events, and the exposure they experience is going to be unusually high,” Morello-Frosch said. “But they’re kind of, in many ways, the canary in the coal mine of what the health implications are of these kinds of intense chemical exposures associated with major extreme fire events.”
The scale and intensity of the October infernos has heightened health concerns, particularly for crews who responded in the first wave of the emergency and stayed for days and weeks, eating and sleeping in their turnouts, often on the fireline.
“From a firefighter long-term health standpoint, this is the West Coast 911,” said Santa Rosa firefighter Tim Aboudara, president of the city firefighters’ union, referring to a wave of health issues among those who responded to the 2001 World Trade Center bombing.
“That’s not me saying that. That’s health people talking about it.”
The catastrophic firestorm included four wildfires now listed among the 20 most destructive fires in California history, including the top-ranking Tubbs fire.
The Nuns fire also is in the top 20, as well as the Atlas fire in Napa County and the Redwood fire in Mendocino County.
More than 6,500 structures, mostly homes, and countless vehicles were destroyed in Sonoma County alone, along with whatever potentially hazardous fuels, chemicals, coatings and materials may have burned along with them.
Moreover, where firefighters normally would wear self-contained breathing apparatuses to fight structure fires, most battled the Wine Country fires in lighter, less restrictive wildland gear, without heavy air tanks and the constraining face masks, mouthpieces and framed harnesses that would have eliminated exposure to toxic fumes, firefighters said.
Thus, they had little to no respiratory protection at all during days of heavy physical exertion in smoke that contained a whole host of chemicals, Aboudara said.
“If we go to a wildland fire and it happens to burn a home, then we are exposed, essentially, to the same kinds of things as we were at this particular fire,” said fire Chief Jack Piccinini, who heads the Windsor and Rincon Valley Fire Protection districts. “The problem is we were exposed to these kinds of things for days.”
Tests for health risks
Firefighters annually undergo intensive physical examinations and fine blood screenings, Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre said. And even when their work is relatively routine, firefighters are encouraged to document suspected exposure to health risks and related circumstances through an online reporting system, according to retired Santa Rosa fire inspector Mark Pedroia, who sits on the firefighters’ association board.
But the extreme potential for health risks related to the recent wildfires already had prompted discussions among some crews about enhanced testing and monitoring when the outlines of Morello-Frosch’s study were made public a few days ago.
“This isn’t the only medical surveillance that we’re going to do on responders,” said Aboudara, who has been working with the city to develop protocols. “This is an advanced tool to help us guide what that surveillance looks like.”
The Marin County-based Commonweal Biomonitoring Resource Center began collecting samples for the study in San Francisco on Tuesday and is taking appointments in Santa Rosa for Friday and Monday.
In addition to providing samples, firefighters will be providing information about their days and length of service, where on the fires they worked, what kinds of setting they were in, as well as more personal information such as how much sleep they had, whether or how often they were able to shed their firefighting gear, or even whether they had the opportunity to wash their hands before eating, Morello-Frosch said.
Firefighters’ associations in Santa Rosa, San Francisco and Santa Clara County have been getting word out to members.
At the fires’ peak, nearly 5,000 personnel from around California and beyond had converged on Sonoma County to fight flames that erupted amid gale-force winds the night of Oct. 8.
Funding for the health study only covers testing for 200 people.
Organizers are targeting 30 firefighters from Santa Clara County, 60 from San Francisco, and 85 from the North Bay, including Santa Rosa Fire, Cal Fire and other local fire agencies, Wood and Aboudara said.
Ideally the study would involve a larger sampling and have started during the fire, when the array of any contaminants to which firefighters were exposed would be most concentrated in their blood and urine, Morello-Frosch said.
But time was needed to set up protocols, get institutional approvals from partnering agencies and obtain authorizations necessary to study human subjects.
Morello-Frosch has been examining cancer rates in female firefighters for three years, in collaboration with the San Francisco cancer prevention foundation.
The study will still be comparatively small scale because of the shortage of time and the lag time between likely exposure and collection of test samples. But it will at least record the results of preliminary analyses and obtain specimens that can be tested for a broader suite of chemicals should additional funding become available, Morello-Frosch said.
Moreover, it should assist in establishing guidelines and protocols that can be put into use on short notice when another wildfire erupts, she said. The work could shed light on health risks for the broader public, as well, Morello-Frosch said.
“I think we can learn a lot from firefighters that’s not only relevant to first responders, but is also relevant to the human health effects more broadly,” Morello-Frosch said.