Study uses wristbands to track firefighters' exposures to carcinogens

The Duke University researchers' findings may be helpful in determining where and when the risks are highest


By Leila Merrill

DURHAM, N.C. — A recent study published by a research team at Duke University may offer doctors and public health officials a new tool to track firefighters’ exposures to cancer-causing chemicals and to see where and when the risks might be greatest.

The tool is an inexpensive silicone wristband like the ones people wear to show support for causes.

Members of the Durham Fire Department wore silicone wristbands in 2019 and early 2020 for a Duke University study on firefighters’ exposures to cancer-causing chemicals while on duty and off.
Members of the Durham Fire Department wore silicone wristbands in 2019 and early 2020 for a Duke University study on firefighters’ exposures to cancer-causing chemicals while on duty and off. (Photo/Durham Fire Department/Duke University)

“It turns out that ordinary silicone wristbands, like the ones sold in stores, absorb the semi-volatile organic compounds you’re exposed to while you’re out in the world,” said study lead Jessica Levasseur, a Ph.D. student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said in an article on Duke’s website. 

The Durham Fire Department helped initiate the study after officials contacted Duke researchers for help identifying firefighters’ exposure risks.

A total of 43 firefighters assigned to six stations in Durham enrolled in the study. Data was collected between August 2019 and February 2020.

The team analyzed wristbands for the 20 firefighters. Research participants completed two surveys – the first after wearing the wristband while off duty, to establish a baseline. Then firefighters completed another survey after a shift in which they responded to a fire while wearing the wristband. 

Each wristband was analyzed for the presence of 134 different chemical compounds that have been linked to cancers, including polyfluoroalkyl substances.

“Seventy-one of these chemicals – including seven PFAS, which to our knowledge have never previously been detected using wristbands – were found in at least half of the bands,” Levasseur said.


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The firefighters’ levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (one of the carcinogens), brominated flame retardants and organophosphate esters were 0.5 to 8.5 times higher in the bands they wore while on duty than in those worn off duty. 

“This research is the first to demonstrate that silicone wristbands can be used to quantify occupational exposure in firefighters and distinguish exposures that may be related to fire events versus other sources,” Levasseur said.

“Conducting follow-up research with a larger population will help pinpoint the exposure sources that contribute to firefighters' risk for cancer and assess exposure risks that may be related to chemicals off-gassing from their gear or materials in their firehouse, which we did not examine,” she said.

The peer-reviewed findings were published on April 26 in the journal Science of the Total Environment.


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