Firefighters Need Protection Too

At a glance

Learn how CDC and Michigan are working to reduce possible harm to firefighters from chemicals often found in their materials and protective gear.

female firefighter


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services aim to reduce possible harm to firefighters from chemicals often found in their materials and protective gear.

The Class B aqueous film forming foam that responders may use to fight fires contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), some of which can stay in the human body for long periods of time. Exposure may increase cholesterol levels and the risk of cancer.

CDC provides funding and expertise to help the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services protect Michigan firefighters through a project called PFAS in Firefighters of Michigan Surveillance. Public health scientists are studying the level of PFAS in blood from more than 900 Michigan firefighters. The goal is to increase knowledge among Michigan policymakers, the general public, health care professionals, and the scientific community about PFAS exposures in Michigan firefighters, and guide decisions to help lower exposures.

A Family Tradition

Michigan Fire Marshall Kevin Sehlmeyer has been a champion of the project since its inception in 2018. For him the cause is personal. He follows in his father's footsteps as a firefighter, as does his 22-year-old son, Sean. "I want to minimize his exposure and our fellow firefighters' statewide," says Sehlmeyer.

"I'm the lead advocate for fire safety in our state. That also means taking care of our firefighters! It's my job to rally firefighters to participate in the study."

For decades, Class B aqueous film forming foam has been the gold standard for quickly extinguishing dangerous fuel fires, especially those involving hydrocarbons at airports, military bases, industrial fires, and fuel hauling accidents. "It has effective extinguishing mechanisms," says Sehlmeyer. "However, now it's coming out that it's possibly damaging to the environment and human health, and change is needed."

In his view, a good outcome of the PFAS in Firefighters of Michigan Surveillance project would be to see if PFAS have gotten into the bloodstream of his ranks and, if so, start looking at how the firefighters can reduce exposures, and receive appropriate medical help, if needed.

Captain of Fire Operations Chris Tinney in Holland, Mich., also takes the cause personally. His father, cousin, and great-uncles were firefighters. "We had the opportunity to go to the station and hang out with my dad," he recalls. "It was a logical fit for me."

The veteran firefighter lost a colleague named Ted to lung cancer at age 62 in 2016. "His battle with cancer provided a lasting reminder and motivation to take an active role in working with others to identify the causes of cancers in firefighters. Our department remembers and honors Ted through our actions."

Tinney's is one of 63 Michigan fire departments to participate in the PFAS in Firefighters of Michigan Surveillance project.

‘Dangers We Don’t Always See’

He believes the project may reveal job factors that can relate to occupational cancer. As he says, "It's the last thing we think about. We're at the ready for an Emergency Medical Service response, or a fire response, or whatever service the community calls for. We often forget there are dangers in this job that we don't always see. We need to learn what those are and if they are preventable."

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is collecting data through the end of 2023 and beginning to analyze results. Participants can receive their personal blood PFAS results if they wish. A report of the findings is expected to be released in 2024.

For more than three decades, CDC's Division of Laboratory Sciences has produced data on the U.S. population's exposure to hundreds of environmental chemicals. In 2009, CDC launched a biomonitoring program to increase states' ability to study human exposure to environmental chemicals that may be toxic. To this end, CDC provides funding and trains laboratory staff in Michigan and other states in analytical methods, data processing, and sample management.

"We saw the CDC partnership as an opportunity to expand our PFAS work. This issue is important to us. There is evidence that firefighters occupationally exposed to PFAS have blood concentrations of it that exceed averages in the U.S. population," says Matthew Geiger, director of the Division of Chemistry and Toxicology at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

"This project conducts biomonitoring of firefighters and provides health education to empower firefighters to make decisions to protect themselves from PFAS exposure."