Study shows regular blood donation could remove PFAS from firefighters’ bodies

A world-first study involving hundreds of Victorian firefighters shows regular blood donations could reduce the level of potentially harmful chemicals in their bodies.

The trial, conducted by Macquarie University over 12 months, measured the effect of blood donation on levels of per-fluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the body.

PFAS is a broad name for 4,700 chemicals that have widespread use in everyday life, from non-stick cookware to carpets and clothing.

Historically, PFAS have also been used in firefighting foams, meaning firefighters are the most occupationally exposed cohort to the chemicals.

Previously there was no way to reduce the amount of PFAS in the body.

Fire Rescue Victoria (FRV) Assistant Chief Fire Officer Mick Tisbury said the results of the study were a triumph against the odds.

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“We’ve done it. Everybody said it couldn’t be done and we’ve been able to get these toxic chemicals out of our bodies,” Mr Tisbury said.

“Don’t ever tell a firefighter something is too hard to achieve, because that’s what we do every single day of the week, we come up with solutions and that’s what we’ve done here.”

PFAS have been correlationally linked to thyroid issues, low fetal weight, endocrine disruption and various forms of cancer.

Firefighter describes the ‘time bomb’ of PFAS exposure

Environmental scientist Mark Taylor, who co-authored the study, said the health benefits of PFAS removal were still to be determined, but the psychological impact on firefighters was immeasurable.

“They don’t focus on the clinical outcomes, they take a precautionary approach,” Professor Taylor said.

“They say ‘we don’t want these chemicals in our body, we don’t want to be guinea pigs to see what’s going to happen to us in 10, 20, 30 years. Let’s get them out.'”

Two men standing in front of a fire truck
Mick Tisbury (left) and Mark Taylor say developing a solution to PFAS exposure will provide a sense of relief for firefighters and affected communities.(ABC News: Simon Tucci)

Mr Tisbury said the mental pressure of having high PFAS levels after years of exposure was immense.

“It feels like we’ve got a time bomb in our body.”

While PFAS firefighting foams have been phased out in the past decade – and outright banned in Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales – the long half-life of the compound means it remains in the environment for years.

Many FRV fire trucks were still contaminated with the substance years after the foam had been phased out of use.

While trucks and equipment are able to be decontaminated, removal of PFAS from the body represents the final hurdle.

No national legislation around the use of PFAS exists, with the compounds still in use in industrial settings.

Plasma donations cut PFAS levels by a third

The $ 1.2 million clinical trial involved 285 FRV staff and contractors with elevated levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate, a commonly detected type of PFAS, in their systems.

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