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Firefighters are exposed to toxic chemicals that may affect their health. Photo: www.freedigitalphotos.net

Firefighters are exposed to toxic chemicals that may affect their health.
Photo: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

When firefighters rush out the firehouse doors, sirens screeching on the way to fight fires, they put their lives on the line in more ways than one.

In responding to roughly 28,000 fire calls a year, members of the San Francisco Fire Department are routinely exposed to flame retardants, diesel exhaust and other toxic chemicals that seep out of raging infernos and work their way into the air.

A growing body of evidence strongly suggests that exposure increases firefighters’ risk of developing cancer. But until now, studies have focused on men.

That’s about to change. Members of the San Francisco Fire Department are working with researchers at UC Berkeley, UCSF and the Silent Spring Institute to find out whether exposure to toxic chemicals increases the risks of breast cancer in female firefighters.

The project, known as the Women Firefighters Biomonitoring Collaborative Study, has been under way for about a year.

“Since breast cancer is a cancer that more commonly affects women, and because of anecdotal evidence that the firefighters have been experiencing (many cases of breast cancer), we wanted to see if there was a link,” said Jessica Trowbridge, a UC Berkeley researcher who is coordinating the study.

Trowbridge and her colleagues are gathering blood and urine samples from about 160 women — 80 San Francisco firefighters and 80 city office workers who will serve as the control group — to use in measuring chemical, hormone and melatonin levels.

They will also measure the lengths of the women’s telomeres, caps on the ends of chromosomes that are associated with aging and cancer, also thought to be related to chemical exposure and working demanding night shifts.

Firefighters in general have higher rates of cancer, especially respiratory, digestive and urinary system varieties, a recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study found.

That study included women, but there weren’t enough of them to draw robust conclusions about their cancer risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With about 225 female firefighters, San Francisco is better equipped than most cities for a study like this: Women make up about 13 percent of its firefighting population, said Heather Buren, a lieutenant and paramedic with the fire department who is working on the study.

In 2011, less than 5 percent of firefighters nationwide were women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Researchers will also test for other chemicals that could contribute to higher rates of cancer in both groups of women, who are probably exposed to personal care and household products as well.

There has been a cultural shift with respect to chemical exposure. For one, firefighters now have better breathing masks, which they’re encouraged to wear for longer periods of time in toxic environments.

There are also rules prohibiting members of the department from storing their turnouts — the suits they wear to fight fires — in firehouse rooms where they eat and sleep.

The San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, which organizes screenings and promotes cancer prevention in the department, is partially responsible for those changes. It was formed in 2006 by Tony Stefani, a retired firefighter who himself fought cancer.

Researchers have nearly finished enrolling participants for the breast cancer study. They hope to have results published in two years. The women who participate in the study will be able to see their individual results when they are complete.

 Source: San Francisco Gate. This article has been edited for length.
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Working with cars can be an occupational risk. Image: FreeDigitalPhotos

Working with cars can be an occupational risk.
Image: FreeDigitalPhotos

A complaint investigation found that Transport Tech LLC failed to provide employees with an effective training program, including information on appropriate handling and safe use of hazardous chemicals at its Hillside repair facility.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited the company for five repeat safety violations, carrying proposed penalties of $66,400.

“Workers have the right to know what chemicals they are exposed to and how to protect themselves against exposure, which can have severe health effects,” said Angeline Loftus, OSHA’s area director at the Chicago North office in Des Plaines.

“Employers have a responsibility to provide accurate information about the hazards their workers face each day, and Transport Tech failed to do that.”

OSHA initiated an inspection on March 28, 2014, after it received a complaint alleging hazards at the shop, which provides repair services for trucks operated by the national carrier Central Transport LLC.

Transport Tech failed to put identification and warning labels on containers filled with hazardous chemicals.

The company also failed to have an eyewash station readily accessible and provide portable fire extinguisher training, as required.

In addition, floors at the facility were not kept clean and dry to prevent slips and falls. The company was cited for similar violations in 2011 at the same facility.

OSHA issues repeat violations if an employer previously was cited for the same or a similar violation of any standard, regulation, rule or order at any other facility in federal enforcement states within the last five years.

Transport Tech, based in Warren, Michigan, has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

To ask questions, obtain compliance assistance, file a complaint, or report workplace hospitalizations, fatalities or situations posing imminent danger to workers, the public should call OSHA’s toll-free hotline at 800-321-OSHA (6742).

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA’s role is to ensure these conditions for America’s working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance.

Source: OSHA

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The warehouse has been closed and workers sent home until further notice.

The warehouse has been closed and workers sent home until further notice.

A Walmart returns processing center in Indianapolis is contaminated with a toxic substance, and hundreds of workers at the evacuated facility are now undergoing medical testing to see if they were exposed.

The contamination involves a massive warehouse, where logistics company Exel processes merchandise returned from Walmart retail stores.

The warehouse now sits empty after Exel ordered nearly 600 full-time and contract workers to evacuate the processing center on August 20.

On that day, supervisors met with employees at 3:45pm to announce the facility was shutting down immediately.

During the meeting, employees were not told the reason for the shut-down, only that they would continue to receive their normal pay and benefits and would not return to work until further notice, according to a longtime worker who asked not to be identified.

Five days later, Exel managers again met with employees at a nearby hotel to explain Walmart discovered the presence of a strange substance within the facility.

Testing showed the substance to be PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyl, a synthetic organic chemical compound that is highly toxic and classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as “probable human carcinogens.” The EPA says studies in animals provide conclusive evidence that PCBs cause cancer.

Over the past two weeks, Exel employees have been reporting to an east-side medical laboratory for blood tests, which Exel hopes will shed light on which employees were exposed to the PCBs and what impact – if any – the exposure might have on their health.

“It’s a situation that continues to evolve, and we’re working diligently with Walmart to understand it more,” said Exel Vice President of Communications Lynn Anderson.

“We took an overly cautious role and decided we wanted to get out of the building right away. We are really trying to understand the extent of the contamination and the exposure and what it means for the future and the facility.”

A Walmart company spokesperson says that Walmart made a joint decision with Exel to close operations “out of an abundance of caution.”

“Walmart immediately hired an environmental consulting firm after a contractor servicing a return center we lease discovered the presence of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. Additional testing confirmed PCBs were present in the building, which is operated by a contractor, Exel Inc. We made a joint decision with Exel to close the facility out of an abundance of caution.

“Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) have been informed and are investigating this matter. We are cooperating with the investigation, and early indications suggest that the contaminant is in the building materials.

“We have made arrangements for returned products from our stores to be sent to other return centers.”

Unusual particles discovered

Anderson says the contamination was discovered by accident, while equipment was being moved inside the plant. That’s when workers found an unusual residue and “particles that didn’t look right.”

Walmart hired a third-party company to test the residue, and according to Exel, the testing revealed the presence of PCBs.

How much PCBs and where did they come from? Exel and its employees are still looking for answers.

Exel plans to begin its own independent testing at the abandoned warehouse this week. In the meantime, it is actively looking for another facility to resume its operations. Exel has not ruled out the possibility of returning to the contaminated facility, but says that is unlikely – at least in the short-term.

Since the evacuation, Exel has hosted two face-to-face meetings with affected employees to provide them with information, and another meeting is scheduled for early October.

At the last meeting, workers were encouraged to take advantage of free blood tests.

PCBs are considered very dangerous to human health, and they are very hard to destroy. Banned in the United States for decades, they were commonly used as coolants and stabilizers in products such as fluorescent light ballasts, transformers, paints, cements, electrical components, pesticides, lubricating oils and sealants.

A known carcinogen, PCBs are linked to other serious health concerns including negative impacts on the immune, reproductive and neurological systems.

Source: 1340 AM WBIW

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