Health

Michigan testing blood of firefighters to analyze PFAS exposure


LANSING, MI — The state of Michigan is taking blood samples from firefighters as part of a project to study how much exposure they receive to toxic PFAS chemicals.

This week, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced the launch of the PFAS in Firefighters of Michigan Surveillance (PFOMS) project, a multi-year $1 million biomonitoring effort to assess firefighter exposure to the “forever chemicals.”

Firefighters can be exposed to PFAS when handling aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), a type of chemical-based firefighting foam used by airports and municipal departments to battle fires involving gasoline, oil and jet fuel.

Recent studies have also shown firefighters can be exposed to PFAS through their gear and by inhaling fire station dust.

“The findings will help inform activities to minimize firefighters’ exposure to PFAS,” said Joneigh Khaldun, MDHHS chief medical executive. “Emerging science continues to reveal the effects that PFAS can have on human health, and the firefighters who participate in the PFOMS project will contribute to our understanding of PFAS exposure among firefighters.”

The state is currently recruiting career and volunteer firefighters at randomly selected departments. The goal is to get blood samples and survey data from 600 to 900 firefighters over the next three years. Drinking water samples are also being taken at fire stations.

The project launched April 28 at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport Fire Department. Six other departments in Tuscola, Alcona, Lenawee, Ingham, Allegan and Oakland counties are participating in the first year of the project.

Those departments include the ACW Unionville Fire Department, Alcona Township Fire Department, Cambridge Township Fire Department, Capital City Airport Department of Public Safety, Dorr Township Fire Department, and Rochester Hills Fire Department.

The project is among several studies around PFAS exposure underway at the state health department that involve analyzing the blood of certain populations in Michigan. It’s being funded by the state and U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Advocates and experts have sounded the alarm in recent years about occupational exposure for firefighters, who handle the chemicals when fighting fires with foam but are also wearing protective turnout gear that is coated with PFAS chemicals.

In 2019, experts with the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), published a white paper showing that high levels of the compound PFHxS are being found in the blood of firefighters. The chemical is a common ingredient in firefighting foams and is one of seven PFAS chemicals the state of Michigan regulates in drinking water and groundwater.

A 2020 study led by University of Notre Dame researcher Graham Peaslee found that large amounts of PFAS in firefighter gear is leaching into inner layers of their coats.

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to serious diseases, including kidney and testicular cancer, as well as reductions in vaccine efficacy and reproductive complications.

The PFAS research builds upon data and studies showing cancer to be a leading cause of death over the past few decades among firefighters.

Firefighting foam has caused numerous cases of environmental contamination from PFAS in Michigan and around the country. New state laws were passed in 2020 requiring stricter documentation and notification about the use of AFFF on a fire, as well as more training around handling foam.

The state also collected more than 51,000 gallons of Class B AFFF foam in 2020 from local fire departments around Michigan and shipped it to a hazardous waste landfill.

Airports are still required by the Federal Aviation Administration to use AFFF foam, although those rules are set to change this fall to allow for use of fluorine-free foams.

This spring, an AFFF spill at the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport led to a spike in PFAS levels in wastewater discharged to the Kalamazoo River.

At the national level, a defense bill passed in 2019 requires the military to phase out PFAS-laden foam use starting in 2024 and stop most training with it.

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