Firefighters Face Increased Risk of Developing Cancers

Firefighters extinguishing a building fire

Some might consider firefighting an admirable career choice, but it also increases the long-range risk for various cancers and more than doubles your chances of developing mesothelioma, the rare but aggressive cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

A team of researchers from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studied the health history of almost 30,000 firefighters from three major American cities to complete its findings.

It was the most comprehensive study done regarding cancer risk and the firefighting profession. It was also the first that definitively linked this prevalence of mesothelioma in U.S. firefighters. NIOSH released the findings, which covered the last 60 years, earlier this month.

The rates of various cancer incidences were measured against those found in the general U.S. population. Cancers of the digestive, urinary and respiratory systems significantly rose among firefighters, but increased rates of mesothelioma were the highest among all cancers.

A Dramatic Risk Increase

The risk for mesothelioma, which affects the thin, protective membrane surrounding the lungs, heart or abdominal cavity, was 2.29 times higher for firefighters. Cancers of the esophagus (1.62 times), kidney (1.27), breast (1.26) and intestines (1.21) were the others with the highest rate increase among firefighters.

“[The rate increase for mesothelioma] is surprising somewhat,” Robert Daniels, Ph.D., NIOSH lead researcher in the study, told Asbestos.com. “But we’ve known about asbestos for some time, and the exposure that firefighters have to it. So we shouldn’t be too surprised. The study is important from an awareness standpoint.”

The study analyzed cancer deaths among 29,993 career firefighters from Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco from 1950 to 2009. The findings were consistent with smaller, previous studies. The cancer incidence estimates are only from 1985 to 2009. The mesothelioma observation didn’t begin until 2000 when it was first officially coded.

Of the 4,461 cancer incidence reports among the firefighter pool from 1985 to 2009, only 36 were listed as mesothelioma.

Firefighters often are exposed to known carcinogens and combustion by-products like formaldehyde and benzene, along with materials like asbestos, which was used extensively throughout the 20th century.

The inhalation or ingestion of microscopic asbestos fibers is the only known cause of mesothelioma.

Awareness Helps Prevent the Problem

Daniels believes the importance of the study to firefighters is that it will raise increased awareness to the dangers in the job. Although the profession has become safer in recent decades with better, more sophisticated equipment, there also is the human element involved in taking the necessary precautions.

“I think fire departments do a great job in providing the equipment, but the use of it often depends on a person’s perceived own risk,” he said. “One of the concerns is whether or not a firefighter wears the respiratory protection during certain job tasks.”

Daniels believes that firefighters will be more inclined to take full advantage of their equipment if they understand all the risks. A firefighter, for example, might remove respiratory gear when a fire has been reduced to smoldering embers and the obvious dangers have passed.

Breathing in any amount of asbestos fibers, though, from even the faintest amount of smoke, could present a long-term danger to a firefighter.

“If you don’t see the cancer risk, you’re probably less likely to take all possible precautions. There are a whole lot of things they can do to minimize their exposure [to asbestos],” he said. “It’s a lot easier to prevent cancer than to cure it.”


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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