Faculty in the News

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Adjunct professor of chemistry, longtime fire fighter, and UCLA alumnus Derek Urwin (B.S. ’03 Math, M.S. ’17, Ph.D. ’22 Chemistry, Alexandrova group) is featured in UC Newsroom article about UC-backed research helping with the climate crisis in California.

As a graduate student in Professor Anastassia Alexandrova’s group, Urwin’s research focused improving firefighter health and safety, specifically cancer. He was profiled in a 2021 UCLA Newsroom article.

Excerpted from UC Newsroom (by Julia Busiek):

New UC-backed research is helping California communities respond to the climate crisis

A partnership between UC and the State is funding 38 projects that will pair academic researchers with community-based experts to design immediate solutions to the climate crisis. One project aims to gather data on the cancer-causing chemicals wildland firefighters are exposed to as they battle more blazes in the wildland-urban interface.  Credit: CalFire

Derek Urwin and his fellow firefighters have a mordant quip about wildland fires that burn into developed areas: “That one took a couple of years off my life.”

“We say it jokingly, to shrug off a hard day’s work,” says Urwin, a Los Angeles County firefighter and adjunct professor of chemistry at UCLA. “But in reality, we can feel it.” He and his colleagues know it’s hazardous to spend day after day breathing in toxic smoke from burned out cars and buildings. They all know mentors who’ve gotten sick in retirement; they know cancer is the leading cause of death for firefighters nationwide.

“Basically, we know it’s bad, but we don’t know how bad,” Urwin says. That’s because most of the data on cancer in firefighters comes from urban areas, where crews wear heavy protective gear and face masks hooked to bulky air tanks, and where fires typically don’t take more than a few hours to extinguish. Not much is known about the long-term health risks of battling wildland blazes. Since they need to be able to move fast over rough terrain, wildland firefighters typically wear just a single layer of fire-resistant clothing and spend weeks at a time on the front lines — often without respiratory protection.

Two firefighters respond as a home burns in the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly a million acres in Northern California in 2022. Climate change and population growth are driving an increase in fires in the so-called wildland-urban interface, and not much is known about the health risks that firefighters face when breathing in smoke from burning appliances, buildings and cars. Credit: CalFire

“You can imagine how much more substantial the exposures are in these wildland-urban interface settings,” says Urwin, who went back to school in chemistry at age 35 to tackle the issue of cancer among firefighters and earned his Ph.D. at UCLA last year. As climate change fuels more and bigger fires statewide, he fears the cost to his and his colleagues’ health will only grow. “But in absence of data, you’re flying blind, and potentially not fixing things that would be easy to fix,” says Urwin.

Derek Urwin is a Los Angeles County firefighter and an adjunct professor of chemistry at UCLA. Courtesy Derek Urwin

So he’s teaming up with Shehnaz Hussain, a molecular epidemiologist at UC Davis and researcher at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, to study cancer-causing conditions among California’s wildland firefighters. Over the next two years, they plan to outfit firefighters with devices that measure levels of airborne carcinogens, to get a better sense of what these firefighters are breathing in while they work. They’ll also collect and analyze wipes that firefighters use to clean the soot off their faces and hands at the of the day to find out what toxins might be absorbed through their skin. And they’ll study biological markers of cancer in the human body and these markers’ association with factors that are thought to raise cancer risk, like irregular sleep, stress and tobacco use.

Hussain and Urwin’s study is one of 38 California Climate Action Grants announced in August as part of a new partnership between UC and the State of California. Using $80M in state funds, UC is administering two-year climate resilience projects in every part of California. Researchers are tackling wildfire, water, health, biodiversity, sea level rise, clean energy and disaster response. And they’re teaming up with experts from California communities on the front lines of climate change to design solutions that will protect people’s health, homes and livelihoods.

“The scale, breadth and immediacy of these grants will transform California’s response to the climate crisis,” said Theresa Maldonado, UC vice president for research and innovation. “Each project was selected because of its potential to get research-based information, practices and resources into the hands of Californians that need it most, and communities will start seeing these tangible benefits within a matter of months.” 

Read on to learn about some of the other innovative California Climate Action Grants helping California communities cope with the climate crisis.