When people think about the dangers of being a firefighter, they often imagine roaring infernos, collapsing roofs, and exploding backdrafts. They picture uniformed men and women bursting into smoke-and-flame filled rooms to rescue the people trapped inside. What many people don’t know is that perhaps the most dangerous aspect of being a firefighter is the considerable exposure to toxic chemicals and harmful materials firefighters experience in their day-to-day line of duty.
Numerous studies have shown that the chances of being diagnosed with cancer are much greater among firefighters than they are for the rest of the population. For example, in 2006 the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) performed a review-based study proving that firefighters have an “elevated meta-relative risk for multiple myeloma.” However, the specific causes of this increased cancer rate are widely hypothesized but largely unknown due to the difficulty in tracking what substances firefighters are exposed to and in knowing what their effects are.
It’s a dangerous trend, and with cancer diagnoses on the rise for firefighters all across America, it’s a trend that deserves the attention of our entire medical community. A new study hopes to bring light to the growing epidemic, and in so doing, save the lives of countless firefighters.
What’s Killing Our Firefighters?
The study, carried out by researchers at the University of Arizona in conjunction with the Tucson Fire Department, will use blood and urine samples to track the health of up to 600 firefighters over a 3-year period in an effort to identify the causes of cancer among those who work in this profession. The study will also attempt to find the most effective means for reducing firefighters’ exposure to carcinogens.
The University of Arizona received a $1.5 Million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to perform the study.
Researchers will use sophisticated technology to track the condition of firefighters by determining the specific substances encountered by firefighters, the quantities of each different substance in the bodies of firefighters, how the materials may have been induced, and how dangerous each substance is.
Lead researcher Dr. Jeff Burgess believes understanding which carcinogenic materials pose the greatest risk to firefighters is a major step in the fight to reduce cancer among first responders:
“Reducing firefighter exposure to carcinogens should limit later development of cancer. If we can determine effective ways of achieving this goal, we should have a substantial positive impact on firefighter health.”
Firefighters in the Tucson Fire Department are excited to be participating in the study that could lead to better protection for firefighters in their department and throughout the country. Capt. John Gulotta of the Tucson Fire Department explained in a news release:
“The goal of the fire service is that ‘everyone goes home’. We want to ensure that not only do we go home, but we go home with the quality of life that we’ve earned. This collaboration with the University of Arizona will use modern technologies to aid us in finding solutions that will assist in protecting our firefighters against modern day fires. Something we have to remember is we aren’t just firefighters, we are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends. This partnership will help ensure the health and safety of the future of the fire service.”
The Unfortunate Plight of Firefighters, an Ongoing Tragedy
When firefighters rush into a burning building, they enter an atmosphere full of smoke and deadly gasses. Combusting household materials – including carpets, furniture, walls, insulation, and flooring – produce a toxic blend of airborne poison. Due to inadequate protective equipment, firefighters ingest the harmful particles through inhalation and absorption by the skin.
What’s worse, house fires are even more toxic nowadays as a result of the different materials which have been used in manufacturing and construction over the past decades. For example, asbestos, a naturally occurring rock mineral that is extremely dangerous to humans, is often found in the insulation of homes, but also in floor tiles and pipe wrap. Investigating the site of a fire, a normal step in firefighting protocol, exposes one to severe levels of soot, ash, toxins, and carcinogens. Furthermore, all of the equipment used by firefighters becomes covered in these harmful materials, so hazardous exposure is a constant fact for firefighters every day they show up to work – even when they aren’t out there fighting fires.
It should be no surprise then to learn that firefighters have been proven to have a greater risk of being diagnosed with cancer.
What Kinds of Cancer Do Firefighters Get?
In 2013, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) made groundbreaking news when it revealed that firefighters had mesothelioma at a rate double to that of the US population as a whole. The study concluded that the higher incidence rate of mesothelioma among firefighters was related to exposure to asbestos while fighting fires.
A 2005 study by the University of Cincinnati concluded that firefighters face a 102% greater chance of contracting testicular cancer compared to the general population. They also have a 53% greater chance of contracting multiple myeloma, a 51% greater chance with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a 39% greater chance of getting skin cancer, and a 32% greater chance of being diagnosed with brain cancer. The study also found firefighters have increased chances of getting prostate, stomach, lung, and colon cancers.
Todd Wagoner, a firefighter who was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 after 26 years on the job, called cancer among firefighters an “epidemic.”
“[Cancer] touches the fire service in so many different ways,” Wagoner said.
Wagoner endured 8 weeks of chemotherapy and 35 rounds of radiation therapy without missing any work.
An Admirable but Overdue Undertaking to Save Our Firefighters
The new University of Arizona study is an ambitious project to address the growing problem of cancer among firefighters.
The study aims to measure exposure to carcinogenic material at fire sites and in the firehouse. Blood and urine samples — “biomarkers” — will be taken before and after working at the site of a fire. The biomarker samples will then be analyzed for chemical contaminants. By using technology that involves “high-resolution mass spectrometry,” the researchers will analyze the biomarker samples for combustion products that have previously been undetectable to researchers.
Also under investigation will be the effectiveness of recommendations from the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN), which are designed to protect firefighters from harmful exposures. The researchers will see whether or not current measures being taken by firefighters are sufficient to keep them healthy, and, if not, what additional precautions should be taken.
Ultimately, the results of the study will help determine how firefighters can reduce their exposure to carcinogenic materials by following a more refined risk-management process.
Firefighters are men and women who selflessly put the wellbeing of others before their own safety. It is tragic that so many of these heroes are sick and dying – from mesothelioma and other forms of cancer – and the epidemic is made all the more tragic due to their efforts to help others. Hopefully the information gathered by this new study will prove itself invaluable, providing greater safety and less cancer for firefighters all across the U.S.