Firefighters exposed to mercury during Tubbs Fire, new study shows

A new study shows that dozens of firefighters who battled a deadly wildfire two years ago had higher levels of mercury in their blood, compared to crews who were not deployed. 

UC Berkeley researcher Rachel Morello-Frosch, the principal investigator of the study, said researchers discovered higher levels of mercury in the 150 firefighters who volunteered to have their blood drawn after the 2017 Tubbs Fire, compared to 30 who were not on the fire lines. 

She said they found a class of compounds called Perfluoroalky, which are often found in firefighting gear and foams and are considered toxic. 

The study was conducted about three weeks after the Tubbs Fire broke out. The wildland blaze killed 22 people and destroyed thousands of homes in Santa Rosa and beyond. 

"I'm not surprised," San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nickelson told KTVU. "We see this in urban firefighters as well. There are housing burning, and within those houses there are lots of toxic chemicals that our firefighters are coming into contact with."

Environmental scientist Dr. Rachel Morello-Frosch says the results are preliminary and stresses the samples were taken weeks after the Tubbs Fire had been put out.

Samples were also taken following the Camp Fire last year. Those results there are still pending.

The plan now is to get samples from firefighters closer to the front lines.

"The study has suggestive results, but also raises a lot of additional questions," said Dr. Morello-Frosch. "So, we want to be prepared to go out next time.

The San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation is working closely with researchers on the study and sharing the results with fire departments up and down the state and across the country.

"The amount of toxic exposure that they're getting with minimal equipment is extremely serious," said Tony Stefani from the San Francisco Fire Fighters Cancer Prevention Foundation.

A cancer survivor herself Chief Nicholson says this battle is personal. "I love our brothers and sisters in the fire department,' said Chief Nicholson. "I don't want any of them to go through what myself or anyone else has had to go through."

San Francisco firefighters stand ready to respond to the next massive wildland fire, and say at this point there's little they can do to limit their exposure to dangerous chemicals.

The chief stressed that firefighters need to clean themselves and their gear carefully after fighting fires, but that's only part of the solution.

She is calling on fire safety equipment manufacturers to find different chemicals to use in their fire retardant and safety gear to make them safer for firefighters going forward.