By Stuart Wolpert, UCLA
Derek Urwin, a longtime firefighter who expects to complete his Ph.D. in chemistry during the winter quarter, is out to change that, using his knowledge of chemistry to improve firefighter health and safety and, ultimately, bring these cancer rates down. It’s a mission that had a very personal origin.
In 2014, Urwin’s brother Isaac, then 33, died of leukemia. Urwin, who was serving with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, took time off to care for him through his chemotherapy treatments.
Urwin, who in July became director of science and research for the International Association of Fire Fighters, the nation’s largest firefighters’ union, is working to identify harmful chemicals in smoke and charred objects, focusing in particular on cancer-causing compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin or ingested.
His doctoral thesis focuses on how these compounds can bind to DNA and cause mutations that increase the risk of cancer, and he creates software and designs algorithms to quantify this process. Yet while PAHs represent a huge class of compounds, the Environmental Protection Agency has prioritized only 16 of them as high-risk, Urwin said, and that happened decades ago, even though many others are now known to be even more harmful. What’s more, he said, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classifies only one PAH as a known human carcinogen.
This lack of recognition of the danger of exposure to PAHs has harmful implications for firefighters, Urwin emphasized, hampering preventative measures, impeding firefighters from receiving medical coverage for occupational cancers and often preventing their families from receiving justified death benefits.
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