Cancer: A Hidden Danger For Firefighters

We all recognize the heroics of our firefighters who willingly put themselves at risk on our behalf. What we may not realize, is that beyond the obvious dangers, firefighters are putting themselves at a much higher risk for developing various cancers. The greatest risk is mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer resulting from asbestos exposure.

Increased Risks:
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently released findings from one of the most comprehensive cancer risk studies completed that directly links the firefighting profession to increased cancer risk. A research team from NIOSH compiled and studied the medical history of nearly 30,000 career firefighters in three major American cities from 1950-2009. Cancer rates were measured against the general population. The study revealed that firefighters had an increased rate of developing digestive, urinary, and respiratory system cancers, but the highest among all for firefighters was mesothelioma.

Awareness of the Risks:
The NIOSH study’s lead researcher, Robert Daniels, PH.D., noted that the rate increase was somewhat surprising, but that with the known exposure firefighters have to asbestos, one shouldn’t be too surprised. The ONLY known cause of mesothelioma is from inhaling and ingesting microscopic asbestos fibers, and firefighters are regularly exposed to carcinogens, combustion by-products, and asbestos, as they were prominently used materials throughout the last century.

Preventative Measures:
The greatest takeaway from the study is awareness. Technology continues to improve the gear and equipment that firefighters use, and fire departments are doing a good job of providing this protective gear. The problem is with each individual’s perceived risk. Firefighters recognize the need to wear full protection when the dangers are obvious, but they might be less inclined to stay in full gear once the fire is reduced to smoldering embers. Unfortunately, breathing any amount of asbestos fibers, even in smoke, could be a fatal risk long-term. The hope is that the NIOSH study can be used to make firefighters more aware of the potential dangers. Statistics speak for themselves. Understanding the risks can be one of the greatest preventative measures available.