As an associate professor and researcher in the UC College of Medicine’s Department of Environmental Health, Erin Haynes, DrPH, has always been interested in understanding how chemicals affect the human body.
Haynes has worked extensively with families in rural eastern Ohio to better understand their exposure to manganese, but recently Haynes turned her attention towards Cincinnati’s firefighters. Working with the Cincinnati Fire Department and Engine 19 in Corryville, Haynes and her team in Environmental Health sought to identify the different types and concentrations of chemicals firefighters are exposed to evaluate how they could impact firefighters’ health.
“Together, we were able to determine that firefighters are exposed to numerous cancer-causing chemicals during a fire and during overhaul,” said Haynes.
Cancer risk and cardiovascular disease are major risks for firefighters, but until recently, many firefighters weren’t aware of these risks until it was too late. Haynes’ research confirmed that many of the toxicants firefighters are exposed to can significantly increase the risk of these diseases.
In order to help educate and protect firefighters from these occupational hazards, Haynes worked with the City of Cincinnati to develop an awareness campaign to inform firefighters to take simple precautions to prevent exposure.
“We developed messaging for them to wear their air during overhaul, wash themselves and their gear after a fire and overhaul, so they would remove all of the grit and soot off their skin. By washing their gear, they make sure that they aren’t re-contaminating themselves when they take their next run,” explained Haynes. These messages were used to help pass Ohio’s Senate Bill 27 that provides compensation for firefighters with cancer.
Haynes’ work isn’t just impacting local firefighters—fire stations across the country are implementing the new safety practices. Being able to make impactful, transformative changes like this is what motivates Haynes to continue her work in environmental health.
“I love that I’m able to do research with people who are on the front lines—firefighters who risk their lives for us every day. It is good to give our environmental health expertise back to the community to benefit and improve lives. My goal is that firefighters have a long and happy retirement,” says Haynes.