Tuesday, May 4 marks International Firefighters Day — a day to both remember all of the firefighters who have lost their lives and to support the firefighters who currently serve and protect our communities each and every day of the year.
International Firefighters Day aims to:
- Show support for firefighters worldwide
- Recognize firefighters’ commitment and dedication
- Remember firefighters who lost their lives or were injured in the line of duty
- Say “thank you” to firefighters for their selfless work
- Demonstrate respect and appreciation for firefighters
Firefighters are nothing short of heroes. Still, many of them suffer from undue health risks and illnesses. In fact, due to the high levels of carcinogens to which firefighters are exposed while on the job, firefighters have some of the highest rates of cancer in any occupation.
Firefighters and Occupational Exposure
A major collaborative study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which tracked 30,000 firefighters from Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, found that firefighters showed higher cancer rates than the general U.S. population.
The study’s major findings included:
- Firefighters had a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths compared to U.S. cancer rates.
- Firefighters develop mesothelioma — a rare and especially deadly cancer caused by asbestos exposure — at twice the rate of the general U.S. population.
- The chance of a firefighter developing lung cancer increases with the amount of time a firefighter spends at fires.
The biggest takeaway from the landmark study is that firefighters are at increased risk of developing certain types of cancer as a result of occupational exposure.
Firefighting Foam: A Danger to Firefighters
On a day like International Firefighters Day, it’s important to not only recognize the hard work that firefighters do, but to draw attention to some of the preventable dangers to which firefighters are exposed on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, flames are not the only enemy that firefighters battle. Many times, firefighters breathe in carcinogens and toxins as a result of being exposed to fires.
In addition, companies have used dangerous man-made chemicals to make firefighting foam — one of the substances used to help put out fires. These chemicals, known as PFAS, have been linked to a number of deadly health conditions, including a wide array of cancers, such as:
- Renal or kidney cancer
- Testicular cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Neuroendocrine tumors
- Prostate cancer
- Liver cancer
- Breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer (colon and/or rectal cancer)
PFAS-based firefighting foam has been sold for decades because of its effectiveness in putting out jet fuel and petroleum fires. However, it may cause various types of cancer — most notably kidney, testicular, and pancreatic cancer — in firefighters who were regularly exposed to the foam.
At particular risk are U.S. military firefighters, as the military widely used the firefighting carcinogen for approximately 60 years. Firefighters assigned to airports are also at risk because airports required the use of the foam until 2018.
Toxic substances, like the PFAS in firefighting foam, are but one of the many reasons why firefighters suffer from disproportionately high rates of cancer. Building awareness of such risks is especially important on International Firefighters Day.
Thank a Firefighter This International Firefighters Day
In the words of the International Firefighters Day founders:
“Firefighters dedicate their lives to the protection of life and property. Sometimes that dedication is in the form of countless hours volunteered over many years, in others it is many selfless years working in the industry. In all cases it risks the ultimate sacrifice of a firefighter’s life.”
To participate in International Firefighters Day, the founders of the awareness campaign ask that you wear blue and red ribbons tied together. The two colors symbolize fire and water — the two main elements that firefighters work with. Worldwide, these two colors are also synonymous with emergency services.
On this day, we offer our sincere gratitude to firefighters everywhere. Their sacrifices are beyond counting.