NIOSH: Firefighters at Greater Risk for Cancers

Nov. 6, 2013
Researchers determined the study group of firefighters had higher rates of several types of cancers, and of all cancers combined, than the U.S. population as a whole.

Firefighters are at a greater risk than the regular population to develop cancer.

That was the conclusion reached by researchers during a NIOSH/USFA study, according to results released this week.

In collaboration with the National Cancer Institute and the University of California at Davis – Department of Public Health Sciences, NIOSH researchers found that a combined population of almost 30,000 firefighters from three large cities had higher rates of several types of cancers, and of all cancers combined, than the U.S. population as a whole.

Read the study

During the first phase of the study, they examined mortality patterns and cancer incidents in  career firefighters in San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia employed from 1950 through 2009.

Among the other findings were:

  • Cancers of the respiratory, digestive, and urinary systems accounted mostly for the higher rates of cancer seen in the study population. The higher rates suggest that firefighters are more likely to develop those cancers.
  • The population of firefighters in the study had a rate of mesothelioma two times greater than the rate in the U.S. population as a whole. This was the first study ever to identify an excess of mesothelioma in U.S. firefighters. The researchers said it was likely that the findings were associated with exposure to asbestos, a known cause of mesothelioma.
  • Firefighters can be exposed to contaminants from fires that are known or suspected to cause cancer. These contaminants include combustion by-products such as benzene and formaldehyde, and materials in debris such as asbestos from older structures.
  • The findings of the new study do not address other factors that can influence risk for cancer, such as smoking, diet and alcohol consumption. In addition, few women and minorities were in the study population, limiting the ability to draw statistical conclusions about their risk for cancer.

"These findings are generally consistent with the results of several previous, smaller studies. Because this new study had a larger study population followed for a longer period of time, the results strengthen the scientific evidence for a relation between firefighting and cancer," officials said in a prepared statement.

During the next phase, researchers will further examine employment records from the same three fire departments to derive information on occupational exposures, and to look at exposures in relation to cancer incidents and mortality.

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