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Daily News Blog

19
May

Contaminated Environment and Chemical Exposure Puts Firefighters at Elevated Risk for Adverse Heart and Brain Effects

(Beyond Pesticides, May 19, 2022) A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association finds a correlation between the number of fires fought annually and atrial fibrillation (AF), one of the most common medical arrhythmias that increases the risk of stroke, heart failure, and other cardiovascular health issues. In the firefighting occupation, firefighters can experience exposure to chemicals and particulate matter in smoke, pollutants, volatile organic compounds, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that increase cardiovascular (heart) and respiratory distress risk through oxidative stress and autonomic function disruption. However, firefighters encounter both personal and occupational (work-related) risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, making this subset of the population particularly vulnerable to heart-related fatalities. Considering firefighters live 10 to 15 years less than non-firefighters, studies like these are significant for understanding how chemical exposure contributes to health and wellness disparities. Lead author Paari Dominic, Ph.D., notes, “Clinicians who care for firefighters need to be aware of the increased cardiovascular risk, especially the increased risk of [AF], among this unique group of individuals… The conditions that elevate their risk further, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, lung disease and sleep apnea, should be treated aggressively. In addition, any symptoms of [AF], such as palpitations, trouble breathing, dizziness and fatigue, should be investigated promptly.”

Using the Louisiana State University Health Shreveport, researchers surveyed 10,860 firefighters who are members of one of the five preselected organizations. The survey asked firefighters how many fires they fought per year to determine occupational exposure and compare that to self‐reported cardiovascular disease. Firefighters were mostly men less than 60 years old. The results demonstrate that firefighters face a 14 percent increase in AF risk due to occupational exposure. Inhalation and dermal (skin) exposure represent the main routes of exposure driving cardiovascular issues. The more fires fought per year, the higher the cardiovascular risk, denoting a dose-response relationship between the magnitude of chemical exposure and response to chemical exposure.

Firefighters play a role in protecting wildlife, people, and personal properties from harms, making the job more physically demanding. However, regardless of a healthy lifestyle (e.g., fitness, diet) to prevent illness or injury from physical dangers, firefighters can still frequently encounter hazards like chemical exposure, which can be unavoidable. Thus, studies on firefighter health have shown an increase in risks like heart diseases, not only from toxic chemicals in fire, smoke, or combustion, but from chemicals in gear, such as flame retardants. Organophosphate ester  (OPEs) is an additive used in flame retardants, mainly used as a replacement for the phased-out polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Consequently, residues of organophosphates (OPs) enter the environment, making these chemicals ubiquitous in human and animal blood, urine, tissues, and milk. Research demonstrates that OPs are highly toxic, originating from the same compounds as World War II nerve agents, producing adverse effects on the nervous system, endocrine disruption, reproductive dysfunction, fetal defects, neurotoxic damage, and kidney/liver damage. Exposure can increase vulnerability to deadly diseases, including cardiovascular disease. However, the growing cancer incidence among firefighters nationwide is most concerning, as reports suggest exposure to chemicals in safety equipment and aqueous film-forming foams (e.g., flame retardants) leads to cancer development.

For the first time, researchers discovered a dose‐dependent relationship between heart conditions like AF and firefighters’ occupational exposure to toxic chemicals. Every additional five to ten years of firefighting increased AF prevalence by one-half to a full percentage point, even after adjusting for age. Although OPEs toxify the environment, other chemical compounds of concern in the study are PAHs, with over 100 different chemicals that exist naturally or artificially (e.g., coal, wildfires, agricultural burning, pesticide products, medicine, hazardous waste sites, etc.). Exposure to PAHs occurs by breathing in contaminated air, as these toxic compounds can attach to particulate matter or contaminate food, water, and other resources. PAHs are carcinogens that can prompt other health consequences. Moreover, regions with high chemical use can also have higher rates of wildfires, and thus more fires are fought per year. California, a region prone to wildfire, also contains many agricultural lands that are treated with pesticides. However, the interaction between pesticides and fire has unknown health and environmental consequences and pesticide labels specifically advise the user to avoid flammable environments. With ample evidence demonstrating cancer rates and other disease prevalence is higher among firefighters, the study recommends, “Further research into causal relationships, underlying mechanisms, and risk mitigation strategies is crucial and will lead to a better understanding of cardiovascular risk factors in [firefighter] and the ability to protect and care for [firefighters] in the line of duty.”

Cardiovascular disease is becoming increasingly prevalent and the leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2022, followed by cancer. Therefore, understanding the risk that pesticide exposure plays in disease development is essential to consider since these chemicals can cause disproportionate health effects on individuals working occupations like firefighters, farmworkers, and landscapers. With far too many diseases in the U.S. associated with pesticide exposure, reducing pesticide use is a critically important aspect of safeguarding public health and addressing cost burdens for local communities. Policies should enforce stricter pesticide regulations and increase research on the long-term impacts of pesticide exposure. Beyond Pesticides tracks the most recent studies related to pesticide exposure through our Pesticide Induced Diseases Database (PIDD). This database supports the clear need for strategic action to shift from pesticide dependency. For more information on the multiple harms pesticides can cause, see PIDD pages on cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other diseases. Learn more about how pesticides can adversely affect human and environmental health by reading Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticides and You article “Highly Destructive Pesticide Effects Unregulated.”

One way to reduce human and environmental contamination from pesticides is to buygrow, and support organic. Beyond Pesticides advocates a precautionary approach to pest management in land management and agriculture by transiting to organic. Furthermore, given the wide availability of non-pesticidal alternative strategies, families, chemical occupational workers, and the agricultural sector can apply these methods to promote a safe and healthy environment. For more information on the benefits of organic, see Beyond Pesticides webpage, Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: About Lawsuits, Journal of the American Heart Association

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