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Researchers Win $900K Grant to Protect Health and Safety of Firefighters

Project Will Address "Forever Chemicals" in Firefighting Foam

firefighters put on fire
Studies show that firefighters are at an increased risk of developing multiple cancers, liver damage, immune suppression and endocrine disruption effects because of PFAS exposure while on the job.

By Karen Angelo

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has awarded a $900,000 grant to Research Prof. Anila Bello of the Department of Public Health for research into better protections for firefighters from harmful chemicals used to extinguish fuel-based fires.

Known as “forever chemicals” because they never fully break down, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are added to a broad range of consumer and industrial products, from nonstick pans, pizza boxes and carpets to cosmetics, biodegradable drinking straws and paints. They are also used in firefighting foam and in the coating of firefighters’ gear. 

While most people have some levels of PFAS in their bodies, studies show that firefighters are at an increased risk of developing multiple cancers, liver damage, immune suppression and endocrine disruption effects because of PFAS exposure while on the job. 

“PFAS are one of the most challenging environmental and public health issues of the 21st century, because they are everywhere – in drinking water, air, soil and even our bodies,” says Bello. “For firefighters who already have a high-risk job, this burden of inhaling and absorbing these harmful substances that cause diseases in the course of their daily jobs is preventable.” 

In partnership with the Fire Prevention Research Foundation, the North American Fire Training Directors and Rutgers University, Bello will lead a nationwide survey of fire training facilities to find out what type of foams are used and how often, as well as the amounts used and disposal methods. The results will be used to identify incentives and barriers to adopt PFAS-free alternatives.

Exposure Data from Firefighting PFAS Foams and Heat to Inform Selections 

The data collected from the survey will inform the second part of the project: testing the exposure levels of PFAS and PFAS-free foam alternatives. Led by Dhimiter Bello, who is associate dean for research and graduate studies in the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, the study will measure exposure levels to possible toxics emitted when heat degrades the chemicals in the foam. 

Anila Bello
Anila Bello
The reaction could convert PFAS to nano-aerosols and produce other dangerous toxics such as hydrogen fluoride gas, carbon monoxide and reactive intermediates. PFAS could turn into smaller particles that stay airborne for longer periods of time, penetrating deep within the lungs. 

“Thermal degradation behavior of commercial firefighting foam formulations under variable conditions of temperature and oxygen deficiency has not yet been studied,” says Dhimiter Bello. “We want to understand the possible cocktail of toxics emitted from different foam formulations under controlled conditions in our lab using a unique testing platform. The results will help us better understand which toxins to measure in studies related to firefighters and how foam formulations influence PFAS behavior and toxic byproducts.” 

New methods and analytical techniques to detect PFAS will be developed as part of the grant. Asst. Prof. Michael Ross of the Chemistry Department is developing an inexpensive portable technology for firefighters to use to screen for PFAS contamination of foams in the field on materials and surfaces. 

“All of this research will lead to data-driven guidance for firefighter training centers and departments to make safer selections and avoid regrettable substitutions,” says Anila Bello.