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RECETOX examines firefighters’ health to recommend prevention improvement

Experts from Masaryk University are investigating how chemicals affect firefighters’ health.

Frontline firefighters not only have a very physically and mentally demanding occupation but, compared to the general population, they are also exposed to a number of chemicals used in dealing with fires and other accidents, as well as to hazardous combustion products. Within the CELSPAC – FIREexpo project, experts from the RECETOX Centre of the Faculty of Science MU are investigating how all these factors affect their health.

The aim of the study is to find out how this demanding occupation affects the “biological markers”, that is indicators of health, and how firefighters could potentially influence their job’s impacts and thus reduce the health risks they are exposed to.

Researchers from the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Sports Studies are collaborating on the research with the Fire Protection and Training Centre (Fire School) in Brno. This cooperation allowed them to assemble a unique cohort of volunteers.

“Nearly 170 participants took part in the research, which began in 2019. One group consisted of professional firefighters aged 18 to 35, the second group consisted of recruits at the beginning of their firefighter training, and the third control group consisted of athletes of the corresponding age who have not been exposed to the chemicals under study,” said Pavel Čupr, the head of the research, about the composition of the volunteer group.

The opportunity to observe new firefighter recruits, who are undergoing a very demanding training course, and to compare them with their experienced colleagues who have participated in many real-world operations, is what is unique about this study. Essentially, this offers professional firefighters the opportunity to test how well they are protected and what to look out for during training and real firefighting operations.

Over the past several months, experts have monitored and measured the concentrations of various substances in the blood, urine or on the skin of firefighters to identify the degree to which they are exposed to these chemicals during and after operations, but also during decontamination. Researchers are also trying to find out how exposure to these substances manifests, for example, in DNA damage in venous blood cells, oxidative stress, thyroid function and epigenetics.

“In the study, we focus especially on substances produced during combustion, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, as well as flame retardants (perfluoroalkyl substances), which are often included in firefighting foams. Some of these are already banned or are generally blacklisted, but conditionally allowed for use in firefighting,” said Čupr.

However, the researchers are also looking at other indicators affecting health. They monitor the physical condition of the firefighters and its changes over time, as well as whether it is linked to the individual’s mental state. Researchers also want to find out whether preventively administered antioxidants could improve the removal of pollutants from the volunteers’ bodies.

The Fire School also praises the cooperation with MU experts because no adequate study of the level of the firefighters’ exposure to and the possible health risks associated with the aforementioned perfluorinated substances has been performed in the Czech Republic to date.

As is clear from the above, firefighting is a demanding profession that needs to be considered in its entire context, with a special focus on promoting knowledge and practical skills among professional and volunteer firefighters in taking care of their health.

The head of the study added that the research team is currently processing and evaluating the data to prepare a general strategy for health prevention among firefighters. “We want to make recommendations on how to reduce some of the persistent risks associated with the occupation to make it safer. In a complementary study, we will also look into whether and to what extent firefighters may have fertility problems caused by exposure to chemicals at work,” Čupr said.