Cancer risk for firefighters

We are not aware of any specific study that has been completed on the occurrence of cancer among wildland firefighters, but there is enough data out there about structural firefighters that make this a major concern.  Wildfire Today has covered this before, but the Spokane Spokesman-Review has a new disturbing article about a local cancer cluster.  Here is an excerpt.

Doug Bacon missed the funeral of a fellow Spokane firefighter because the 59-year-old was in treatment for throat cancer – the same illness that had just killed his friend and co-worker.
A third Spokane firefighter who joined the department with Bacon in the 1970s also has been diagnosed with throat cancer.
“It’s to the point we’re trying to figure out which fire we were all on together,” said Bacon, who survived his cancer and returned to the job in mid-2006. “I’ve got attitude. I fought it.”
Firefighters are at least twice as likely to get cancer as the average person because of exposure to toxins emitted in fires, such as benzene, asbestos and cyanide, studies say. More firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer in the past two years than in the previous 10 years, according to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network and recent studies.
When Bacon was diagnosed with cancer in January 2006, he said he just looked at the doctor and said: “You’re kidding me.” He was unaware at the time that firefighters were more susceptible to the disease. Now, he’s constantly warning young firefighters of the dangers and telling them to keep their masks on – even after the fire’s out.
During July, Spokane area firefighters fought blazes nearly every day, including the massive Valley View wildfire, and two three-alarm fires – The Ugly Duck and Joel building.
Despite wearing protective gear, some walked away from those blazes hacking and coughing. Authorities say asbestos – a cancer-causing agent often found in old building materials – was found in the Joel building.
Research is still being done to determine what level of exposure leads to cancer in firefighters, officials say. Meanwhile, the illness has become a primary concern for the profession.
“Finally we are taking our blinders off when it comes to cancer,” said Michael Dubron, founder and president of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. Dubron is a cancer survivor and Los Angles firefighter. “With our organization, we are trying to be proactive, such as reducing unnecessary exposure. No longer is it cool to run around with soot-covered uniforms and equipment.”
The soot contains many of the same toxins firefighters are exposed to during a blaze, officials say.
Something Wildfire Today wrote on May 28 is worth repeating:
In Canada, the British Columbia government recognizes as an occupational hazard for firefighters the following diseases:
  • testicular cancer
  • lung cancer in non-smokers
  • brain cancer
  • bladder cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • ureter cancer
  • colorectal cancer
  • non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • leukemia
This means that full-time, volunteer, part-time, and paid on-call firefighters suffering from the diseases will qualify for worker’s compensation and benefits, without having to prove individually that the diseases are linked to their jobs.
There is not a lot that wildland firefighters can do to avoid breathing the byproducts of combustion.  There is no such thing as a breathing apparatus containing clean air that can be carried for a 16-hour shift.
The various filter masks that are sometimes bought by wildland firefighters do nothing except filter out some of the larger particles, sticks, and rocks.  The microscopic smoke particulates are so small, that if one were near the ceiling in a room with still air, it would take about eight hours to fall to the floor.  And the masks do nothing to remove the various toxic gasses and other contaminates.
We need to establish a system to track the long term health and cancer occurence within the wildland firefighter community.

Firefighters' dirty drinking water, and "shift food"

The Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC) just published the 12th edition of the “Wildland Firefighter Health and Safety Report” written by Brian Sharkey (if you don’t have the user name and password, go HERE):

Shift food…better than…?
Their research shows that when firefighters eat “small items” during the shift, every 1-2 hours, their total work output increased by 15-20%. Most of the firefighters preferred the shift food to the standard sack lunch. But, almost any food is better than the standard sack lunch, especially after eating the damn ham on Wonder Bread sandwiches for 2 weeks. How does the saying go? When trees burn pigs die?

Water bottles are filthy
Researchers found loads of nasty stuff in the water bottles and drinking systems of firefighters. They tested the bottles or systems of 15 firefighters and found that several of them had high concentrations of molds and yeasts. Legionella-like bacteria, which causes Legionnaires’ disease, were detected in one water bottle and in one drinking tube.

The fatality rate from Legionnaires’ disease has ranged from 5-30% according to Wikipedia. Legionellosis infection occurs after inhaling water droplets containing the bacteria. Pontiac fever is caused by the same bacterium, but produces a milder respiratory illness without pneumonia which resembles acute influenza.

The molds growing in the water systems could be causing allergic responses in some firefighters. But water purifier technology, chlorine dioxide tablets, was found to clean the systems very well. Aquamira and Camelbak sell these tablets. The Camelbak site has instructions about how to clean their products.

In 2005 there was an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Rapid City, South Dakota that resulted in one death and 19 hospitalized and was sourced to a small ornamental fountain in a popular Mexican restaurant. The mayor of the city was one of those hospitalized. The restaurant went out of business and was torn down.

OK, quit reading this blog….get off your butt and go clean your water bottles and Camelbak!

Increased risk of bladder cancer for firefighters

It seems like there are more and more chronic diseases that firefighters are predisposed to get. Now you can add bladder cancer to the list.

ScienceDaily (May 15, 2008) — A new study presented at the Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Urological Association (AUA) suggests that firefighters may be at an increased risk of developing transitional cell carcinoma (TCC, or bladder cancer) and should be considered for routine annual screening. Currently, no guidelines exist for regular TCC screening.

Researchers are from the University of California, San Francisco.

It is well known that prolonged exposure to certain environmental pollutants and chemicals puts humans at a major risk for developing bladder cancer. As the body absorbs carcinogenic chemicals, such as cigarette smoke, the chemicals are transferred to the blood, filtered out by the kidneys and expelled from the body through the urine. Greater concentrations of chemicals in the urine can damage the endothelial lining of the bladder and increase a patient’s odds of developing transitional cell carcinoma (TCC). Firefighters, who are regularly exposed to smoke and chemical fumes, may be at a higher risk for developing the disease than other groups.

Researchers explored this possibility in a screening study of 1,286 active and retired San Francisco firefighters. From August 2006 to March 2007, the subjects – mean age 45 (SD+9.7) – participated in voluntary urine dipstick testing and point-of-care NMP-22 testing. 93 Patients tested positive for hematuria and six tested positive for NMP-22. These 99 patients were referred for upper tract imaging, cystoscopy and urine cytology. Of the group, a single firefighter tested positive for both NMP-22 and hematuria, with two patients – both retired firefighters – ultimately diagnosed with TCC.

The age and sex-adjusted incidence for TCC is 36 per 100,000. These findings represent a higher incidence, suggesting that retired firefighters may be a high-risk group.

In Canada, the British Columbia government recognizes as an occupational hazard for firefighters the following diseases:

  • testicular cancer
  • lung cancer in non-smokers
  • brain cancer
  • bladder cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • ureter cancer
  • colorectal cancer
  • non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • leukemia

This means that full-time, volunteer, part-time, and paid on-call firefighters suffering from the diseases will qualify for worker’s compensation and benefits, without having to prove individually that the diseases are linked to their jobs.

Rather sobering, don’t you think?

Cancer cluster among firefighters

The Firegeezer blog, which always has excellent information about the broad topic of firefighting, had a recent post about a cancer cluster in Queensland, Australia. In part:

” […] Firefighters assigned to the station have a 62% higher rate of brain cancer than the rest of the state.”

Coincidentally, two days ago there was a news story containing preliminary research findings that linked brain cancer with polluted air, and specifically diesel exhaust. Firefighters have a hard time avoiding both.
firefighter smoke
Here is an excerpt from the story about the research:

==============

Dr. Julia Ljubimova found something disturbing when she probed the brains of rats exposed to air pollution: The dirty air appeared to trigger changes indicating the earliest stage of brain tumors.

Ljubimova, an oncologist and researcher at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, stressed that she is not ready to say air pollution is a cause of brain cancer.

“I don’t want to scare anyone, because this is preliminary data,” she said. “But we found something very important.”

Her work suggests that fine particles like those found in diesel soot can switch on firefighter smoke structure firethe tumor genes that many people inherit, jump-starting the disease process that results in brain tumors.

Hundreds of studies have linked air pollution to early deaths, heart attacks, reduced lung function, lung cancer and various other health problems. Ljubimova is among a handful of scientists who are focused on finding out what air pollution does to people’s brains.
Photos by Bill Gabbert