GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new study out of Australia recommends firefighters regularly donate blood or plasma to help lower the amount of PFAS in their bodies. While it may be beneficial for the firefighters, a University of Michigan professor says it highlights a potential threat to the rest of the population.
Justin Colacino is an associate professor of environmental health sciences and nutritional sciences at the University of Michigan. He says from a science perspective, the concept makes sense.
“What (researchers) have found is because of their properties that make (PFAS) good at repelling stains or repelling oils or liquids or coating these fires, they also behave a little bit strangely in our bodies,” Colacino told News 8. “As chemicals get into our bodies, our bodies have natural systems to bind those things up and move them around. These could be drugs, for instance, that get bound up in our blood and then get transported to the right place. PFAS is sort of hijacking this system. They are binding up to those same proteins and then they will start to build up.”
PFAS — or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — is a giant group of chemical compounds that were first developed in the 1940s and incorporated into all sorts of products for its waterproofing and heat-resistant properties. Decades later, research showed that PFAS compounds take a long time to break down organically and can build up in the human body, causing serious health problems including cancer.
“Our bodies don’t really have a good way of excreting them. Even as these proteins are breaking down, these PFAS are still floating around, then they will find the newly generated albumin or serum protein to bind to,” Colacino said.
Because they are routinely exposed to chemicals and other hazardous materials, there is a growing concern about the higher-than-average cancer rates seen in firefighters. The International Association of Fire Fighters reports some notable datapoints that show the cancer risk firefighters face. Overall, firefighters are 9% more likely than the national population of being diagnosed with cancer and 14% more likely to die from their cancer. That covers more than a dozen different types of cancer.
Researchers have been able to identify specific breakdowns in certain forms of cancer based on gender. Men are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer or mesothelioma. A female firefighter is 2.5 times as likely to develop brain cancer compared to other women, three times as likely to develop thyroid cancer or four times more likely to develop cervical cancer, not to mention higher rates of breast, bladder and ovarian cancer.
PFAS pollution is so widespread that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that virtually everyone in the United States has a detectable amount of the chemical compound in their blood. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that there is some level of PFAS in the donated blood used for transfusions across the country.
Whether people turn to blood donation to reduce their body’s PFAS count or not, Colacino believes it’s time to add biomarker testing to donated blood.
“There’s obviously the necessity of that blood transfusion, but the potential that, depending on where that blood came from, there could be this unmeasured risk that folks haven’t been taking into account,” he said.
The American Red Cross says its blood is tested for several disease markers and antibodies — including hepatitis, syphilis and HIV — but it does not test for chemicals or heavy metals. Colacino says we know they are there.
“We know these chemicals are binding up in blood. (Researchers) have looked at this for a couple of decades at least, including heavy metals, things like lead or cadmium,” he said.
It’s not necessarily the potential levels that could be in the donated blood, but rather who receives it that could be the problem.
“This can be really dangerous, especially in the case of newborns and premature infants, their detoxification systems aren’t mature. This could be a major source of those cells,” Colacino said. “But thinking about folks who might be immunocompromised, this could be even worse for them. Folks that have other sorts of diseases, older folks, there can be some risk there.”
He continued: “I feel like this is pretty important and not super talked about.”
Researchers at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University are collaborating to repeat the Australian study, working with local firefighters to see how effective regular blood and plasma donations can be at stripping PFAS from their bodies. However, there’s no real discussion about the effects or potential of PFAS in the donated blood supply.
News 8 reached out to both the American Red Cross and Versiti Michigan. The American Red Cross has yet to respond. Versiti did not wish to comment because it has no affiliation with the researchers conducting the study.