Cancer and the Fire Service

There has been much debate and conflicting evidence regarding whether firefighters have a higher risk of developing cancer than the general public. The reasons for this is are many: cause and effect is difficult to prove in medical studies, cancer is a...


There has been much debate and conflicting evidence regarding whether firefighters have a higher risk of developing cancer than the general public. The reasons for this is are many: cause and effect is difficult to prove in medical studies, cancer is a collection of various different diseases and...


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There has been much debate and conflicting evidence regarding whether firefighters have a higher risk of developing cancer than the general public. The reasons for this is are many: cause and effect is difficult to prove in medical studies, cancer is a collection of various different diseases and subtypes, and performing a study researching cancer for a single group across the country is technically difficult.

Although it is difficult to prove that firefighting causes cancer, it is intuitive that the exposures faced by firefighters increase the risk of developing cancer. Today, most fires that are not wildland fires involve some type of burning plastic or other synthetic materials. These materials produce toxic gases that when burned contain carcinogenic compounds. Carcinogenic compounds are chemicals that when exposed to the body can cause permanent damage to cells that can induce a transformation into a cancerous cell. Not only are firefighters exposed to the inhalation of these gases, they are exposed to them back at the station from the carcinogenic compounds that collects on turnout gear and equipment during a fire. Firefighters are also exposed to toxic chemicals during hazardous materials incidents. Additionally, firefighters are exposed to diesel soot at the station that is known to cause cancer.

Studies published in the past few years suggest that firefighters do have an increased risk of certain cancers. A study released by the University of Cincinnati suggests that firefighters have a higher risk of the following cancers: testicular, brain, colon, melanoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, stomach and rectal cancer. This study demonstrates results similar to another study demonstrating that firefighters in Massachusetts had higher rates of colon and brain cancers than the general public. These studies suggest that not only is firefighting inherently dangerous, it is associated with occupational exposures that increase the risk of cancer.

Since firefighters may be at an increased risk of cancer due to occupational exposure, this column offers suggestions for decreasing the risk. There are two main strategies for preventing cancer fatalities: prevention of developing cancer by minimizing exposure to carcinogenic substances and early diagnosis when the disease is highly curable. Below are suggestions to help minimize your exposure to the carcinogenic compounds encountered on the job and current screening recommendations for common cancers.

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