Research/studies Workplace exposures Fire/emergency medical services

Firefighter study shows inexpensive silicone wristbands can help track chemical exposures

Photo: Valerie Loiseleux/iStockphoto

Durham, NC — Researchers at Duke University have identified a new tool they say can help doctors and public health officials track firefighters’ exposures to cancer-causing chemicals, as well as determine when and where the risks may be greatest.

“The cool thing is, it’s not some expensive high-tech gadget,” a Duke press release states. “It’s just a silicone wristband, purchased in bulk for about $1 apiece.”

For the study, 20 firefighters from two Durham stations wore one of the wristbands while on and off duty. All of the participants completed at least one on-duty shift in which they responded to a fire and then a survey afterward. Eleven also completed an on-duty shift with no fire event and a survey.

The researchers tested the silicone wristbands for 134 chemicals – all of which have been linked to increased incidence of certain cancers. Of those chemicals, 71 were found on more than half of the wristbands. Seven different classes of compounds were captured, including phthalates, found on all of the wristbands. Phthalates are a group of hormone-disrupting chemicals used to make plastics more durable. They’ve been linked to several health problems.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS – also known as “forever chemicals” because they break down slowly over time – were identified on 39% of the wristbands. Additionally, levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs; brominated flame retardants; and organophosphate esters were up to 8.5 times higher on the wristbands worn while on duty than on those worn while off duty.

Researcher Jessica Levasseur, a doctoral student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said the silicone wristbands can absorb semivolatile organic compounds. “It’s like taking fingerprints of everywhere you’ve been and everything you’ve been exposed to. This research demonstrates that silicone wristbands can be used to quantify occupational exposure in firefighters and distinguish exposures that may be related to fire events versus other sources.” Levasseur and her fellow researchers note that previous research shows that firefighters have a 9% and 14% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and dying from the disease, respectively, than the average adult in the general U.S. population.

“Conducting follow-up research with a larger population will help pinpoint the exposure sources that contribute to firefighters’ risk for cancer and assess exposure risks that may be related to chemicals off-gassing from their gear or materials in their firehouse, which we did not examine,” Levasseur said.

The study was published online in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

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