Duke study uses silicone wristbands to track firefighters' exposure to chemicals

Duke study uses silicone wristbands to track firefighters' exposure to chemicals

2:02pm Jul 01, 2022
A photo of the silicone wristband used in a recent Duke University study tracking firefighters' exposure to harmful chemicals. Image courtesy Jessica Levasseur

A recent study out of Duke University used silicone wristbands in order to look at firefighters’ exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. Of the 134 chemical compounds researchers were testing for, scientists say 71 were found in at least half of the bands that the firefighters wore. WFDD’s Bethany Chafin spoke with the study’s lead author and exposure scientist Jessica Levasseur about the research.

Interview Highlights

On how the pilot study came about:

The Durham Fire Department contacted the Duke Cancer Institute and we've since been working with the Durham Fire Department to try and better understand what their exposures are. So we know that firefighters experience higher levels of cancer than the rest of the population. And we also know that [in] firefighting, intuitively, people are exposed to different things than they are every day, but we haven't actually quantified what those exposures look like.

And so using the silicone wristbands, we developed a study in conjunction with the firefighters to try to measure what their exposures were at work and at home, and then we further broke it down trying to understand if their exposures differ when they respond to a fire event at work versus when they don't. 

On how silicone wristbands were chosen for this research:

So about seven years ago, Dr. Kim Anderson's group at Oregon State actually published the first paper using silicone wristbands. Dr. Anderson's group has since used silicone wristbands and silicone dog tags in a variety of applications trying to better understand how they can capture exposure.

But what we believe the silicone is doing is actually absorbing the chemicals that somebody is exposed to while they're wearing it. So it's not that the silicone itself is exposing you to chemicals, but it's more like it's capturing a fingerprint of everything you're exposed to while you're wearing it. So usually what we do to understand people's exposure is we use bio-monitoring, which means we measure urine, we measure blood, we measure other biological tissues. But that can be expensive, it can take a long time, it's invasive. And so we're hoping to continue using silicone wristbands to better understand how they can measure somebody's exposure, because they're really easy to use; you can mail them back and forth between the data collection site and the lab. They can be easily worn by people. Basically, all people need to do is just put them on their wrist and forget about it until it's time to take them off at the end of the study.

On how firefighters' exposure differs from others:

Many of the chemicals that firefighters are exposed to are actually chemicals that we come into contact with every day, but their levels are really different. Most of us aren't running into a burning building regularly or even occasionally. And when we look at how chemicals are used, and when we look at how different products are used in our homes, or in our office buildings, for example, we're not considering what that exposure looks like when those items are on fire.

So being exposed to say the flame retardants that are in your computer — because you want to keep all of those electronics from catching on fire, if there happens to be some sort of malfunction — that's very different than the computer is on fire and it is now kind of melting and those chemicals are coming out. So firefighters wear a lot of protective equipment. But we still want to understand how those exposures differ because we don't really know. These measurements are starting to occur around the country, people are starting to measure firefighter exposures. But there is some thought that there could be differences even based on where in the country you are or what type of firefighter you are.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

Support your
public radio station