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Study finds high levels of cancer-causing chemicals in California firefighters' blood: "I couldn't help but think about 9/11"

Longterm health effects of firefighting
Firefighters' exposure to toxic chemicals two to five times greater than general population: Study 04:02

Firefighters in northern California say they are gaining control over historic, deadly wildfires that have burned more than one million acres. However, researchers and former firefighters working on a new study fear the responders battling the blazes are in danger of suffering unprecedented long-term damage, as the wildfires destroy over 1,400 homes and businesses

"Something has to be done about it now," retired Captain Tony Stefani told CBS News' Carter Evans. 

Stefani, a 28-year veteran of the San Francisco Fire Department, started the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation after he himself was diagnosed with kidney cancer. The group funds research to study the link between firefighters' exposure to toxins and cancer. 

"We can't wait for that latency period for five to 10, 20 years down the line to see if these men and women will contract various forms of this insidious disease," Stefani said.

Stefani said he was concerned about "the level of exposure that these firefighters are getting at these situations" as he watches the flames burn communities around him — levels he called "extremely toxic for long periods of time." 

His concerns were shared by a fellow San Francisco firefighter, Captain Matt Alba, who urged the organization to fund a study analyzing blood and urine samples collected from dozens of firefighters minutes after they leave the frontlines of these unprecedented fires. 

"The problem is this is a new realm for firefighting. It doesn't necessarily cleanly meet structural firefighting, and it doesn't cleanly meet wildland firefighting," he said.

Alba has been with the department for 18 years and spent a week and a half at the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. The state's deadliest and most destructive fire killed 85 people and destroyed more than 1,800 structures in 2018.

"We were starting to see a lot of members with those coughs, headaches," Alba recalled. "I couldn't help but think about 9/11 and what all of those responders went through 10 years after the incident."

Early results of the study, released this week, show firefighters had "…a mixture of chemical toxicants… and some heavy metals at levels higher than those found in the general U.S. population." 

In some firefighters, the level of "PFAS chemicals" — used to make hundreds of household products that are water- and stain-resistant and are also linked to kidney and liver cancers — were two to five times higher than levels in the general population. 

Researchers say the study is a red flag for firefighters and those who live near massive wildfires. 

Environmental health scientist Mike Wilson said that part of the problem at these wildfires is the lack of breathing protection. Urban firefighters use air tanks and face masks to safely breathe in a structure fire, but the same is not feasible for wild land firefighters who often have to hike for miles and work 12 to 24 hour shifts. 

Wilson said some in the industry are working to develop portable respirators that could be used in the field. 

"It's incumbent upon us, I would say, as a society, to ensure that they have all the tools they need to do their work effectively and safely," he said. 

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