Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health


Study finds increased risk of PAHs for volunteer firefighters

Published: June 27, 2024

Dr. Jooyeon Hwang

Jooyeon Hwang, PhD, an associate professor in industrial hygiene for the Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (SWCOEH) at the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, was principal investigator on a study of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in firefighters, published by Frontiers in Environmental Health in May.

The study, “Residual polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and firefighters' hematological profile” found an association between PAH exposure and changes in blood cell components in firefighters, emphasizing the need for improved decontamination protocols and protective measures, particularly for volunteer firefighters.

“Volunteer firefighters often face increased exposure to PAHs due to several factors,” Dr. Hwang said. “For instance, they may have fewer resources to frequently replace their gear, which can degrade over time. According to the NFPA, turnout gear has a maximum lifespan of 10 years, after which its protective qualities, such as fire and chemical resistance, significantly diminish. Moreover, volunteer fire departments might not have the same access to advanced cleaning and decontamination processes as career departments, further exacerbating the accumulation of fire-related contaminants.”

Access to personal protective equipment including advanced protective clothing for firefighters remains a critical issue.

“Our earlier study describes this issue in detail. In brief, it is essential that all firefighters, regardless of whether they are career or volunteer, have access to well-equipped protective clothing and respirator. However, there is a significant disparity in the availability of protective gear between career firefighters and volunteers. For example, volunteer firefighters at wildfire suppression activities from our cohort must purchase their own respirators if they wish to use them.”

Dr. Hwang did not expect to discover that 76% of the study participants were either overweight or obese.

“This raises new questions about how PAHs interact with adipose tissue, as excess body fat may influence the absorption and effects of these compounds. We found that volunteer firefighters had more adverse baseline blood parameters compared to career firefighters.”

Dr. Hwang and the research team plan to continue the longitudinal follow-up with the study participants.

“Our focus will be on how hematological changes over time, resulting from increased exposure to PAHs from fire smoke, may have long-term health implications. Understanding these long-term effects is crucial for improving firefighter health and safety.”

The SWCOEH provides graduate-level training opportunities for occupational and environmental health professionals through our industrial hygiene, occupational and environmental medicine, occupational epidemiology, and Total Worker Health® programs.