U of A study aims to help firefighters reduce cancer risks

Published: Aug. 9, 2019 at 4:06 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - For firefighters, sometimes the blaze is only half the battle.

"Regardless of who you are on the fire scene you get exposed to chemicals.” Over the past 3 years, Dr. Jeff Burgess, Associate Dean for Research and Professor at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, and Tucson Fire have researched ways to reduce cancer causing particles.

It began back in 2013, when TFD Fire Investigator Tom Quesnel was diagnosed with leukemia he obtained while working. After he passed in 2014, Captain John Gulotta of Tucson Fire reached out to Dr. Burgess for help. The two then obtained a grant via FEMA to begin their research.

The research started with surveying 29 fires within a one year period and over 80 percent of TFD firefighters agreeing to be a part of the three year study.

One that started with the fires and ended with looking to bodily fluids.

"The urine will measure contaminants that the firefighters are exposed to both breathing in and through exposure—absorption through the skin. Then we looked at changes within the cell by collecting blood to see what effects those exposures had.” said Dr. Burgess.

Capt. Gulotta said it was his role to go out to the fires when they happen, do the surveys, and then go back to the station to collect the samples. Then, he conducts another survey and meets with U of A researchers no matter the time of day.

Gulotta said it was important they were consistent with the way they conducted things.

Then, this year, the results of their hard work finally came together.

"We have been analyzing all the chemicals in the urine we’ve been looking at the changes that occur at a cellular level and we have done statistical analyses to see if they changed over time. And we feel very confident with our results that we know what they’re saying.” said Dr. Burgess.

The initial results showed that a few simple fixes made a big difference.

"Getting dirty gear washed right when they come out called wash downs, making sure dirty gear is bagged so other people aren't exposed to it, and take a shower right when they get back to the station, remarkably reduce the amount of chemicals in their urine showing the interventions are effective." said Dr. Burgess.

How effective is this process? Dr. Burgess said they are able to reduce exposure by about a third when doing these methods. The wash downs have been in place for a while now at TFD.

Captain John Gulotta is one of the many people who’ve helped implement the wash down method at all the stations, but it was another result that surprised him even more. It turns out, those who aren’t on the front lines like fire engineers—we’re still bearing the heat. So they’ve now started putting them on a self-contained breathing apparatus and seen a big reduction.

“Having them on air made a difference in their reduction and their exposure to me that was significant and it is such an easy fix to put them on a piece of equipment we already have.” said Capt. Gulotta.

Another big push is for the research to help with workers compensation cases.

“Understanding how exposures lead to cancer can help with the workers compensation cases so that when firefighters get cancer, we know that it’s work related and they can get workers compensation it can help with that." explained Dr. Burgess "And it can also help us figure out ways to prevent cancer from occurring. So if we know these changes we can work to find ways to either stop or reverse these changes. So that’s work we’ve already done, it’s already published and we’re continuing to do some more advanced work there and again that’s something that hadn’t been looked at in other places.”

Their main research is now on its way to be peer reviewed and then finally published. Dr. Burgess expects it to be fully completed by the end of the year, but Captain Gulotta knows their work is just beginning.

“Three years of studying the research, the findings that we have are really just now opening up the eyes to an extensive research.” said Capt. Gulotta.

So that one day, the only thing firefighters across the United States have to fight are the flames.

"So it’s spreading. It’s a slow spread but that’s how changes begin. A little bit at at time.” said Capt. Gulotta.

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