Oakes & Bellini Awarded $1.5M FEMA Grant to Study Health Effects of Wildland Fire Smoke to Firefighters

Jessica Oakes and Chiara Bellini

Breath of Fresh Air

Wildland firefighters not only face immediate danger, but could also suffer long-term health effects from smoke inhalation. Two researchers from Northeastern’s College of Engineering, in collaboration with the University of Maryland College Park, are leveraging federal funding to understand, and mitigate, this impact.

Between January and mid-October 2018, there were almost 50,000 wildfires in the United States, burning about 8.1 million acres. While these wildfires become the focus of media attention when they threaten homes and residential communities, less attention is focused on the long-term health risks they pose to the firefighters who battle tirelessly to contain them.

To help understand and combat these negative effects, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program — part of the Department of Homeland Security — recently awarded $1.5 million in research funding to a pair of faculty members in the Department of Bioengineering at Northeastern University.

Assistant Professors Jessica Oakes and Chiara Bellini are the principal investigators for this groundbreaking research study, titled “Health Consequences Following Acute and Chronic Firefighter Exposure to Wildland Fire Smoke.” They are supported in this research by co-principal investigator Michael Gollner, a faculty member at the University of Maryland College Park (UMD), and Casey Grant, the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.

Smoke Inhalation: Hard to Measure and Quantify

According to Oakes and Bellini, there’s a reason their research is unique: because long-term smoke inhalation by wildland firefighters is challenging to study scientifically. “Wildland firefighters work seasonally, and they travel from place to place,” explains Oakes. “Sometimes they are battling a raging fire, and sometimes they are mopping up, or containing smoldering remnants of a larger fire.”

“The wildland firefighters may wear bandanas or face masks, but usually personal protective equipment is just too hot and uncomfortable,” adds Bellini. “We have to understand and contend with a whole range of environmental factors because of the varying experiences these workers have.”

By using a combination of computational modeling and animal studies, the collaborative, interdisciplinary, and inter-university team is creating the first study to address this problem in a controlled laboratory setting over time. The final outcome will be recommendations for best practices regarding overall duration of exposure and use of protective equipment, which FEMA can implement to minimize the negative health effects for our nation’s wildland firefighters.

“A lot of attention has been focused on the obvious danger these firefighters face, but no one has really thought about and studied the long-term effects of all the smoke they are exposed to. Because of the spontaneous and sporadic nature of that exposure, no scientific research has been attempted to date,” says Gollner, an associate professor in UMD’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering. “This study is really the first of its kind, and it should have huge implications for the way firefighters work in the field.”

The Value of an Interdisciplinary Approach

The team will combine their expertise to solve this challenging problem: Gollner will contribute expertise in firefighting practices and fire generation, while Oakes and Bellini will offer interdisciplinary bioengineering expertise that’s critical to understanding this complex health problem. Oakes’ research interests primarily center on respiratory health and lung mechanics, and Bellini studies diseases of the cardiovascular systems from a mechanical perspective.

“Long-term smoke inhalation is really a systemic health issue,” Bellini points out. “The heart, lungs, and blood vessels all reside together in the thoracic cavity — and all are affected by smoke exposure. We needed to bring together a range of expertise to determine what the effects are for all the key organs in the human body. Then we needed an expert in fire protection engineering to answer the question, ‘How do we protect the body effectively?’”

Oakes notes that Northeastern University’s College of Engineering has created the perfect environment for this kind of interdisciplinary research. “Professor Bellini and I are both based in the new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex (ISEC), which provides us with the state-of-the-art laboratory facilities and advanced imaging equipment we needed to secure this funding and carry out this research. It’s also very easy to collaborate because our teams work in the same physical space. ”

Adds Bellini, “Northeastern also encourages its faculty to reach out and identify specialized experts outside the University, like Michael Gollner, who can complement and accelerate our internal efforts. That’s the key to identifying practical solutions quickly.”

“We’re very excited to get started on this important research, which will help FEMA make a real difference in protecting the health and safety of wildland firefighters,” concludes Oakes.



Grant Abstract:

The goal of this project is to quantify the pulmonary and cardiovascular health consequences to firefighters exposed to wildland fire smoke. Despite several studies investigating the smoke exposure to wildland firefighters (WLFFs), the health effects of these studies are not well quantified. Here, we will perform systematic mouse exposures to correlate various exposure conditions to health outcomes with and without a choice of personal protective equipment (PPE). Mouse models are a viable option to perform invasive and chronic exposures, thus providing evidence of health consequences to various exposure scenarios, which could not be done elsewise. The effect of simple personal protective equipment, such as bandanas, face masks, etc. on different smoke profiles will be investigated in the laboratory and, for several selected scenarios, in the mouse in vivo model. Translation of the results from mice to humans will be facilitated through computational simulations of inhaled smoke transport. At the conclusion of this study, we expect to have a better understanding of the long-term health consequences of prolonged wildland fire smoke exposure and offer imperative guidance on choice of respiratory PPE use on and off the fireline. This information will translate to improved health outcomes for wildland firefighters and help to focus future respiratory PPE research and development to where it is most impactful for health outcomes.

Read More: Fighting wildfires is a dangerous job. These researchers have a plan to make it safer.

Related Faculty: Jessica Oakes, Chiara Bellini

Related Departments:Bioengineering