Firefighters absorb Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons through their Skin

Dressed head-to-toe in firefighting gear, PhD student Jennifer Keir stands in front of a house under construction. Laying on the ground behind her is a heavy-duty firefighting hose

Jennifer Keir, supervised by Jules Blais and Paul White (Health Canada)

Department of Biology

Master’s student Jennifer Keir has made a remarkable discovery this past year that could improve the long-term health of Ottawa firefighters. 

It is widely accepted that firefighters are at greater risk of disease than the general public. Although previous research has sought to better understand the risk of exposure to toxins, such research was always performed under training fire conditions. But graduate student Jennifer Keir, along with her supervisors Professor Jules Blais from the University of Ottawa and Dr. Paul White from Health Canada, decided to examine these risks under real-life conditions. They studied the exposure to carcinogens and mutagens that firefighters experience during emergency, on-shift fire suppression. They collected urine, air, and skin-wipe samples from on-shift firefighters before and after they tended to an emergency fire. When the researchers analysed these samples in the lab, they were surprised to find that the main route of exposure to carcinogens and mutagens was through the skin, not through inhalation as had been expected.

Plans are already in place to use these findings to reduce firefighters’ risk of the diseases and illnesses associated with these harmful chemicals. Currently, Jennifer and her team are working in collaboration with Ottawa Fire Services, with funding from the Department of National Defence, the International Association of Fire Fighters and other firefighter organizations, to plan a follow-up study that will assess how well different decontamination protocols work in removing contaminants from firefighters’ skin. They will also test to determine whether these protocols reduce internal exposure to harmful chemicals.

In addition to conducting this research, Jennifer Keir enjoys life outside the lab. While pursuing her master’s, she was a member of the Canadian Ladies Gaelic Football team that won a silver medal at the sport’s world championships in Dublin! She was also granted the unique opportunity to experience firefighting first hand by participating in a live fire training and extrication class with Laramie County Fire District #2 in Wyoming.

Jennifer has a recommendation for every graduate student working towards similar goals: “take advantage of any opportunities that come your way, take the initiative to create your own opportunities, never be afraid to bring an idea to your supervisor, network every chance you get and follow up with an email when you meet someone, but most importantly, maintain a work-life balance by having a life and hobbies outside of school.” Apparently, Jennifer lives by her own advice, and it seems to have led her down a very successful path.  

Learn more about Jennifer Keir’s research

More remarkable students

Back to top