Environment & Science

Did firefighters suffer toxic exposure in the Wine Country Wildfires?

CalFire firefighter Trevor Smith battles the Tubbs Fire on October 12, 2017 near Calistoga, California.
CalFire firefighter Trevor Smith battles the Tubbs Fire on October 12, 2017 near Calistoga, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Researchers are studying whether firefighters suffered any toxic exposure in last month's deadly Northern California wildfires.

Adam Wood, a firefighter and board member of the San Francisco Firefighers Cancer Prevention Foundation, told KPCC researchers plan to take blood and urine samples from 200 firefighters for the study.

The Foundation, which is union-backed, is putting up $100,000 to help fund the study.

The devastating fires burned thousands of structures, which means the materials used to build those structures became airborne, Wood said. Some firefighters may have been exposed to contaminants they aren't usually exposed to during open brush wildfires. 

"Because a month has passed, what we're going to focus on are the contaminants that will remain present in a firefighter's blood and urine over a longer term," Wood said. Researchers will be looking for elevated levels of heavy metals and organic peroxides. Wood said they will also do a test that "will help determine exactly when the exposure took place if they do find elevated levels of these contaminants in the firefighters' blood or urine."

Tony Stefani, head of the foundation, told the San Francisco Chronicle: "This was not your typical wildland fire. You are dealing with a hell of a lot of chemicals."

The results of the test will be available in a couple months, Wood said. 

The fires, which broke out October 8, burned 8,000 homes in the Santa Rosa, Napa and Sonoma areas and killed at least 43 people.​

Thousands of state and local firefighters fought the fires, including 61 from San Francisco. Testing all of them isn't possible.

Researchers say it's important to test for any exposure to toxins as soon as possible after the fires. California state health officials and toxic-substances officials are helping with the study.

Wood said the researchers hope to use the tests as a pilot program to prepare for next year's fire season, when they hope to collaborate with other firefighting organizations around the state and country to study more firefighters. 

This story has been updated.