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.
“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 fetus weight, endocrine disruption and various forms of cancer.
Firefighter describes ‘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’.”
Mr Tisbury said the mental pressure of having high PFAS levels after years of exposure was immense.
“As a firefighter that’s been exposed to this stuff for 33 years, my levels of anxiety are already through the roof,” Mr Tisbury said.
“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.
Trial participants donated blood or plasma at either six or 12 week intervals for a year, with their PFAS levels measured before, during and after the 12-month period.
The results showed a 10 per cent decrease in PFAS levels after blood donation, and a 30 per cent reduction following plasma donations.
“It’s not an instant solution because it’s got to be spread out of a period of time to be efficacious, but we can see the results from the study,” Professor Taylor said.
While decontamination efforts continue at fire stations around the country for appliances and vehicles, the trial represents a breakthrough in intervention for people exposed to high levels of PFAS.
In cases where firefighters have high levels of PFAS in their system, therapeutic donations where blood is drawn and then discarded may be considered.
In March, a Senate joint standing committee recommended the government examine the team’s research on PFAS, stating:
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government consider the research, with a view to examining suitable options for a mechanism for people with high levels of PFAS, who are otherwise unable to donate blood or plasma, to make therapeutic donations as an intervention to reduce their levels of PFAS.
The trial team has been asked to present the results of their work to the United Nations.
Mr Tisbury said he was enthusiastic about sharing the study’s results with fire services at home and abroad.
“The world is interested,” he said.
“There are no solutions on the table [and] we’ve developed the solutions.”
ABC News, 11 April 2022