NBC News: cancer among firefighters

smoke firefighter health cancer wildfire

Above: Firefighter working on a smoky wildfire at Buffalo Gap, South Dakota, March 3, 2016.

(Originally published at 10 p.m. MDT October 23, 2017)

This report by NBC News about the rising rates of cancer among firefighters exclusively shows the structural side of the job. Obviously they are exposed to different toxins than their wildland brothers, so it is unknown how much the data crosses over. One of the big differences between the two disciplines is that for structure and vehicle fires a breathing apparatus (BA) is always available. Firefighters on wildland fires NEVER have access to BAs, which only last for minutes, while they can be exposed to smoke for most of their shifts which on large fires are typically up to 16 hours. And wildland firefighters rarely have the opportunity to, as the video recommends, change clothes and shower within an hour after exposure.

In 2010 we began calling for the wildland fire agencies to conduct a study led by medical doctors and epidemiologists to evaluate the short and long term effects of smoke on firefighters. The federal agencies that should take the lead on this are the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service. State agencies with significant numbers of wildland firefighters need to also be involved.

It is possible that the agencies that employ firefighters do not want to expose the facts about the dangers of smoke. It could cost them money to change their practices, provide a safer workplace, and cover the costs of presumptive illnesses.

Various bills have been introduced in Congress that would establish a cancer registry for firefighters, but to our knowledge none have passed.

Here is an excerpt from an article we wrote March 17, 2017:


“On Wednesday [March 15, 2017] a Montana legislative committee voted down a bill that would have provided benefits for firefighters who developed a lung disease on the job. Republican Mark Noland of Bigfork said firefighters “know what they’re doing”, and:

That is their profession, that is what they chose, and we do not want to, you know, slight them in any way, shape or form, but it is something they’re going into with their eyes wide open.

That is asinine, ridiculous, reprehensible, and irresponsible.

Rep. Mark Noland
Rep. Mark Noland of Bigfork, MT.

He is assuming that when firefighters began their careers they knew there was a good chance they would damage their lungs. If that is common knowledge now, or was 20 years ago when the firefighter signed up, why haven’t the employers already established coverage for presumptive diseases? There is a great deal we do not know about the effects of breathing contaminated air on structure, vehicle, and wildland fires.

Many agencies and government bodies have already established a list of presumptive diseases that will enable health coverage for firefighters. For example the British Columbia government recognizes at least nine “presumptive cancers” among firefighters, including leukemia, testicular cancer, lung cancer, brain cancer, bladder cancer, ureter cancer, colorectal cancer, and non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma.

The Montana legislation would have only covered one of these nine illnesses.

When a person enlists in the military and they come home injured or permanently disabled, should we ignore them, saying they knew what they were getting into? Their “eyes were wide open”? How is treating firefighters injured on the job different? One could argue that they are both defending and protecting our homeland; one of them actually IN our homeland while the other may have been on the other side of the world.” [Update October 23, 2017: for example in an African country, Niger, many Americans have never heard of].


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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One thought on “NBC News: cancer among firefighters”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree that smoke exposure to wildland firefighters should be studied, and it’s disheartening that little such research is published.

    But I’d like to add that along with smoke exposure, diet is a huge factor for cancers and other diseases. In fact, deli meat (as in the traditional sack lunch meatwad) is considered carcinogenic by the World Health Organization. So is the sausage served by caterers at incident breakfasts.

    According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), “each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.” And this: “associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.”

    Here is a link to that information:
    http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf

    A firefighter on a catered fire that has the usual breakfast, sack lunch, and a steak dinner has been given a large dose of carcinogens just at mealtimes. Factor in smoke inhalation and long-term stress, and disease is practically inevitable.

    So along with smoke exposure studies, perhaps we should rethink what food we’re serving firefighters? I think we can do a lot better.

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