Research links wildfire smoke with cardiac arrest in men

smoke prescribed fire firefighter
A firefighter is enveloped in smoke while working on a prescribed fire in Hot Springs, SD, March 30, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Researchers in Australia have found a link between smoke from bushfires and cardiac arrest in men over 35 in the population of metropolitan Melbourne. We would like to see a study done of wildland firefighters who breathe far more smoke than the residents of Melbourne.

Below is an excerpt from Medicalxpress.com:

Men over 35 have an increased risk of cardiac arrest if exposed to poor quality air from bushfires, a new study has found.

Monash University research using data from Ambulance Victoria’s Victorian Ambulance Cardiac Arrest Registry (VACAR) investigated the links between out-of-hospital cardiac arrests and bushfire smoke exposure in metropolitan Melbourne during the 2006-07 bushfire season.

The study, published in the latest edition of Environmental Health Perspectives, found an association between exposure to forest fire smoke and an increase in the rate of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests.

Monash University researchers led by Dr Martine Dennekamp, Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, saw greater increases in the number of men over 35 years old experiencing cardiac arrests but did not see a significant association in women over 35.

Dr Dennekamp said exposure to smoke from forest fires was a significant health issue in many countries, and it was important to raise community awareness.

“The problem is likely to get worse in the future, as we can expect fires to become both more frequent and more severe,” Dr Dennekamp said.

The state and federal governments not only employ the most wildland firefighters in the United States, but they would also be the ones to fund research like this. One would think they would have a disincentive to discover environmental conditions on the job that adversely affect the health of their employees. Don’t ask the question if you don’t want to know the answer, right? Mitigating the hazard of smoke for firefighters on a wildfire would be extremely difficult. But the least these employers should do is determine exactly the nature and scope of the hazard, and support their employees, and former employees, who suffer from life threatening diseases caused by their jobs.

There have been some papers written and some research has been completed on wildfire smoke, but what is needed is a thorough long term study on wildland firefighters conducted by epidemiologists. Something we first called for in 2010.

A very well known and respected Hotshot Superintendent advised me to frequently complete a CA-1 accident form after breathing lots of smoke on a fire. If you don’t, perhaps 10, 20, or 30 years later it might be hard to convince your employer that one or more of the following conditions were caused by your job: leukemia, testicular cancer, lung cancer, brain cancer, bladder cancer, ureter cancer, colorectal cancer, and non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma. All of those are recognized by the British Columbia government as an occupational hazard for firefighters; they are called presumptive cancers. But the United States government does not.

Other articles on Wildfire Today tagged cancer and firefighter health.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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8 thoughts on “Research links wildfire smoke with cardiac arrest in men”

  1. I stopped questioning the health hazards of wildfire smoke years ago after being repeatedly told that there were only temporary/short term effects. Now, after 30+ years of fighting fire, I have only 70 percent lung capacity (Never smoked cigarettes).

    It is time that some third-party research begins in the U.S.

    Great commentary Bill!!

    1. Ken, a 2011 study found some of the same effects; reduced lung function in wildland firefighters.

      A very well known and respected Hotshot Superintendent advised me to frequently complete a CA-1 accident form after breathing lots of smoke on a fire…. for just the reason you pointed out. If you don’t, perhaps 10, 20, or 30 years later it might be hard to convince your employer that one or more of the following conditions were caused by your job: leukemia, testicular cancer, lung cancer, brain cancer, bladder cancer, ureter cancer, colorectal cancer, and non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma. All of those are recognized by the British Columbia government as an occupational hazard for firefighters.

      (I will add that last paragraph to the article.)

      1. Sadly, the presumptive cancer legislation in BC did not translate over to forest firefighters, only structual. Hopefully this changes soon.

  2. It took the goverment 40 plus years to take a little responsibility for agent orange used during Vietnam. Which the goverment still claims the effects are not bad as made out by veterans groups. Veterans groups are now raising concern over the burn pits in Iraq and Afganistan. Now as this study comes forward it should be as no shock to anyone that breathing in smoke is unhealthy. In California there was always poltical pressure when it came to prescribed burns or management fires. Fires for example that where naturally occuring lightening fires that where way in the back country that endangered nothing. They went from managed to suppression fires throwing tons of resources and tax payer money at cause smoke might drift to lower elevations at night. How long must we contiue on this course? Working for the federal goverment should be noted as a health hazard.

    1. I have a co-worker that has taken chest x-rays every year since he joined the shots. Non smoker, but now he has a medical record of his lungs since the start of his career so if he is hit with problems down the line he has uninterrupted records of the progression. This is not a healthy profession folks…

  3. I’m really intrigued to see where this might go. If they did in fact identify this to be a risk to workers (which seems logical), they would then have to undertake actions to reduce or mitigate exposure. What would that look like? Would we have to be restricted in our actions, length of exposure, or would we have to start wearing airway protection of some sort? It seems unlikely that they would simply default to compensation in the event of a long term health effect. Hmmm….

    1. There will probably never be compensation for lung disease for wildland firefighter. They havent even compensated the Vietnam vets yet for agent orange.

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