: A CalFire chief runs past burning grass during a firing operation while battling the Tubbs Fire on October 12, 2017 near Calistoga, California.

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Firefighters Sent To 2017 Tubbs Fire Show Elevated Mercury Levels: Study

Jenna Lane
July 10, 2019 - 8:24 am

Bay Area firefighters who answered the call for help during the North Bay wildfires might have been exposed to an unusually high amount of toxic chemicals, according to a new study. 

Those are the preliminary findings of some first-of-its-kind research, unveiled Tuesday by the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation. 

The study included 180 firefighters who volunteered to take part, with 31 in a control group and the rest returning from the front lines of the 2017 Tubbs Fire that incincerated parts of the North Bay. UC Berkeley environmental health scientist Rachel Morello-Frosch was looking for metals, flame retardants and other chemicals in their urine and blood. 

In "some preliminary results, we saw that more firefighters in the deployed group had elevated mercury levels compared to firefighters that were not deployed," she said. She also found measurable differences of a compound used in firefighting foam and some consumer products. 

Related: State Firefighters Urge Hiring Boost Ahead Of Wildfire Season

The study had some limitations -- for one, it didn’t begin until a few weeks after the fire was extinguished -- but researchers will have chances to follow up in future wildfires. 

"I think this data really justifies doing more field work in real time, collecting samples where possible on site when fire events are happening, and maybe combining that with environmental sampling of air and soil."

Morello-Frosch hopes it could lead to learning about the general public's toxic exposure during wildfires as well.

Meanwhile, San Francisco's fire chief and the president of the foundation that commissioned the study want to see improvements in firefighters' safety equipment. 

A cancer survivor, Chief Jeanine Nicholson links her illness to the toxins firefighters inhale and absorb on the job. 

"For much of my career, it was a badge of honor to have soot all over your face, all over your equipment," Nicholson said. "It meant you worked hard. And we didn't wipe it off at all. We've made some real changes in terms of decontaminating ourselves after fires."

Nicholson and retired Captain Tony Stefani, another cancer survivor, are calling for changes in the gear firefighters use when wildfires reach populated areas. They say the usual urban kit is too cumbersome, while the usual in forest fires does not protect against the chemicals released from burning homes. 

"These fires are not just in the forest," said Stefani. "These fires were a major conflagration in the urban interface, where hundreds and hundreds of homes were on fire. So we knew that these firefighters were basically fighting structure fires without any protection."