Home Fire News California firefighters exposed to mercury while battling 2017 Tubbs fire

California firefighters exposed to mercury while battling 2017 Tubbs fire

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Steve Rubenstein
San Francisco Chronicle

Some San Francisco firefighters who pitched in to battle the deadly Tubbs Fire in 2017 came back to their firehouses with higher levels of mercury and other dangerous chemicals in their blood, partly because of inadequate equipment, says Jeanine Nicholson, the city’s new fire chief.

And that equipment is still standard issue for urban firefighters sent to assist in putting out large wildfires, Nicholson said Tuesday.

“They do not have enough protection,” the chief said after reviewing the findings from a study of the fire’s impact on her crew members. “We need help from the (fire equipment) industry.”

The study by the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation analyzed the blood of 149 firefighters who fought the Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people and burned 37,000 acres in Sonoma and Napa counties.

Ten of those firefighters had dangerously elevated levels of mercury in their blood. Others had significantly higher levels of polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, compared to firefighters who weren’t sent to fight the fire. San Francisco firefighters responding to the Tubbs Fire typically wore lighter, nonrestrictive gear instead of the heavy air tanks and clothing they normally wear for indoor fires, which would have reduced chemical exposure.

The results of the study were preliminary, and the foundation would not release all the findings. Study author Rachel Morello-Frosch, an environmental science professor at UC Berkeley, said the number of firefighters with elevated levels of toxic chemicals might have been even higher if they had been tested earlier. Researchers did not obtain blood and urine samples from firefighters until up to a month after the fire.

None of the firefighters in the study displayed cancer symptoms, Morello-Frosch said.

“Cancer takes a long time to develop, and it would be difficult to say if cancer was caused by the Tubbs Fire or by a career in firefighting,” she said.

Chief Nicholson said the study “raises awareness” of the problem of toxic chemicals.

“It’s not just trees and brush when a house burns,” she said. “Within these homes there are lots of toxic chemicals (that) can build up in a firefighter’s system.”

According to foundation president Tony Stefani, the firefighters’ blood and urine were tested for the presence of 55 chemicals, including metals and flame retardants found in firefighting gear.

The foundation said it would release the entire study, along with a similar study of firefighters who responded to last year’s Camp Fire, in coming days.

Steve Rubenstein is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: srubenstein@sfchronicle.com

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