Cancer risk and smoke exposure among wildland firefighters

(Note: after we wrote this article, more information came to light, and we wrote a follow-up piece.)

NIOSH and the U.S. Fire Administration are conducting a study of cancer among firefighters. I talked with the physician/epidemiologist, Dr. Tom Hales, who is a co-investigator for the study which began in October, 2009 led by Travis Kubale, the study’s primary project officer. He said that over the next four years they will study firefighters from three fire departments: San Francisco, Chicago, and the District of Columbia. They will look at the causes of death of firefighters that have worked for the departments over the last 50 years and compare that with tumor registries in their local communities and the National Death Index for cause of death.

Dr. Hales said that they will ask the firefighters in the study if they have ever worked on wildland fires, but other than that, they will not collect data on firefighters who specialize in wildland fires. He also said that NIOSH has no plans to specifically study cancer rates among wildland firefighters, but emphasized that NIOSH has collected data on smoke exposure on active wildfires and prescribed fires (see below).

What about wildland firefighters?

It is unfortunate that wildland firefighters will not be evaluated in this study, but you have to consider that the probably-flawed TriData study only looked at structural firefighters, and the IAFF and IAFC who helped to push for this new study spend most of their energy and political capital on structural fire.

There needs to be a concerted effort to conduct a similar study on wildland firefighters. It should be led by a physician/epidemiologist and should evaluate the long term health and occurrence of cancer and other diseases among wildland firefighters. There is a lot of grant money out there and it should be possible to get some of it pointed towards this overlooked niche of firefighting.

Wildfire Today is calling out the following organizations to get together and put some pressure on FEMA, NIOSH, and the U.S. Fire Administration to get this done:

  • National Park Service
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • U. S. Forest Service
  • National Wildfire Coordinating Group and their Risk Mgt. Comm.
  • State land management agencies
  • International Association of Wildland Fire
  • International Association of Fire Chiefs
  • International Association of Fire Fighters
  • Federal Wildland Fire Service Association


Below are links to studies about smoke exposure on wildfires, as well as excerpts from a bibliography on the same subject.

Smoke exposure on wildfires

NIOSH conducted a number of studies of smoke exposure upon wildland firefighters between 1988 and 1998. The National Park Service should be commended, since several of them were done in response to specific requests from that agency.  Here are links to three of the NIOSH studies.


UPDATE April 26, 2010:

We wrote a follow-up to this article on April 26. and again on May 5 (response from the NWCG).

Bibliography of wildfire smoke exposure assessments

Here are some excerpts from an MS Word document that is on our Documents page, “Bibliography of all Wildfire Exposure Assessments”, provided by NIOSH.

3: J Occup Environ Hyg. 2004 Sep;1(9):593-606.
Baseline measurements of smoke exposure among wildland firefighters.
Reinhardt TE, Ottmar RD.
Exposures to all pollutants were higher among firefighters at prescribed burns than at wildfires, while shift-average smoke exposures were lowest among firefighters who performed initial attack of wildfires in the early stages of the fires. Smoke exposure reaches its highest levels among firefighters maintaining fire within designated firelines and performing direct attack of spot fires that cross firelines.

8: Am Ind Hyg Assoc J. 1990 Apr;51(4):234-40.
Fire fighters’ exposure to carbon monoxide during Australian bushfires.
Brotherhood JR, Budd GM, Jeffery SE, Hendrie AL, Beasley FA, Costin BP, Wu ZE.
Fatal entrapments of Australian bushfire fighters have led to suggestions that carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning could have contributed to these accidents by impairing the fire fighters’ judgement.

16: Occup Med. 1995 Oct-Dec;10(4):857-70.
Respiratory health hazards and lung function in wildland firefighters.
Harrison R, Materna BL, Rothman N.
The authors discuss the multitude of contaminants to which wildland firefighters are exposed, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate and silica, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, aldehydes, and benzene.

20: Toxicology. 2007 Jul 1;236(1-2):103-13. Epub 2007 Apr 24.
Particle size-dependent radical generation from wildland fire smoke.
Leonard SS, Castranova V, Chen BT, Schwegler-Berry D, Hoover M, Piacitelli C,Gaughan DM.
Firefighting, along with construction, mining and agriculture, ranks among the most dangerous occupations. In addition, the work environment of firefighters is unlike that of any other occupation, not only because of the obvious physical hazards but also due to the respiratory and systemic health hazards of smoke inhalation resulting from combustion. A significant amount of research has been devoted to studying municipal firefighters; however, these studies may not be useful in wildland firefighter exposures, because the two work environments are so different. Not only are wildland firefighters exposed to different combustion products, but their exposure profiles are different. The combustion products wildland firefighters are exposed to can vary greatly in characteristics due to the type and amount of material being burned, soil conditions, temperature and exposure time. Smoke inhalation is one of the greatest concerns for firefighter health and it has been shown that the smoke consists of a large number of particles. These smoke particles contain intermediates of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen free radicals, which may pose a potential health risk…..The ultrafine particles also caused significant increases in H(2)O(2) production by monocytes and lipid peroxidation. All particle sizes showed the ability to cause DNA damage.

21: J Occup Environ Hyg. 2004 May;1(5):296-305.
A screening-level assessment of the health risks of chronic smoke exposure for wildland firefighters.
Booze TF, Reinhardt TE, Quiring SJ, Ottmar RD.
Of the hundreds of chemicals in wildland fire smoke, we identified 15 substances of potential concern from the standpoints of concentration and toxicology; these included aldehydes, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, benzene, and respirable particulate matter….
Of the 15 substances in smoke that were evaluated, only benzene and formaldehyde posed a cancer risk greater than 1 per million, while only acrolein and respirable particulate matter exposures resulted in hazard indices greater than 1.0. The estimated upper-bound cancer risks ranged from 1.4 to 220 excess cancers per million, and noncancer hazard indices ranged from 9 to 360, depending on the exposure group.

44: Arch Environ Occup Health. 2005 Jan-Feb;60(1):40-3.
Application of real-time particle sensors to help mitigate exposures of wildland firefighters.
Edwards R, Johnson M, Dunn KH, Naeher LP.
High particulate exposures have been demonstrated to decrease lung function among firefighters. In this article, the authors demonstrated the feasibility of using small real-time particle sensors to inform wildland firefighters so they may make informed decisions on the use of personal respiratory protection.

UPDATE March 25, 2019:

Here is a link to the findings from the firefighters study that began in 2010.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

6 thoughts on “Cancer risk and smoke exposure among wildland firefighters”

  1. Soon I will retire of (32yr) as an FMO in wildland fire management.
    I have been exposed to alot of WL fire smoke as well as RX fire.
    I was diagnose with Bladder Cancer in 2005. I Have had 4 surgeries (with th 4th just a week ago) along with chemo, and now going through my second chemo faze as we speak. Im convinced from my own experience that I have been affected from my career in WL Fire.
    I would like to be part of a study or research out there.

  2. I beleive that I have almost every study on occupational cancer in Firefighters. Some of the studies are good while the consensus is that others aren’t very good.

    There are a few known cancer clusters in fire departments. Among those are the San Francisco Fire Department involving members who fought a warehouse fire involving ping pong balls in the 1950’s. A florida fire department that fought a fire in a fertilizer facility in the 1970’s and The Lorain Ohio Fire Department which fought a fire on a ship in the 70’s.

    I would have to review the literature on the 1975 NY Telephone Company Fire which has been revisited recently and the Palmetto Street transformer fire which I think was in Brooklyn.

    It should be noted that in Canada, occuaptions are lsited on death certificates. Canadian researchers DID find a birth defect in children correlated to the occupation of firefighter.

    The real question in my mind regard wildland smoke is the relationship to pesticides and herbicides.

  3. My bad. SDTDC is the younger brother/sister of MTDC.

    SDTDC is the San Dimas Technology and Development Center of the U.S. Forest Service.

    PNW is the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the Forest Service.

  4. SDTDC has begun the second year of building upon the “Health Hazards of Smoke” studies from MTDC (1988-1999). Good or bad, it looks like SDTDC, PNW, and Radian are now continuing the studies on wildland fire smoke.

    From the presentations we heard on Friday, SDTC is working on quantifying some of the previously known hazards of smoke and addressing findings from recent scientific research, as well as identifying additional research needs with the assistance of Roger Ottmar and Tim Reinhardt.

    Additionally, after it clears NIOSH, a Wildland Fire NFPA draft standard on respiratory protection should be published in the next 12-18 months. STDC was heavily involved in the development of the draft standard for respiratory protection on wildland fires.

    Things are in the works. Some of it looks very promising.

    1. I know that MTDC is the Missoula Technology Development Center. But what is “SDTCD” and “STDC”? PNW is Pacific Northwest…..something?

  5. Back in the 1990’s, MTDC coordinated a 7-8 year project looking at the “Health Hazards of Smoke” under the direction of Dr. Brian Sharkey, held a wrap-up Conference, published the Proceedings, ands issued semi-annual reports on breaking news on the issue for many years.
    The studies were not well-funded, but laid the groundwork for future work. Now is the time for that work to be funded and move ahead. NWCG hasn’t shown the will and/or the leadership to make this happen, so it’s time for firefighters and organizations like IAWF to take the lead, contacting our Congress-people and urging funding and support thru NOISH and the US Fire Administration. We – wildland firefighters in the US – number in the hundreds of thousands: our collective voices should make an impact. We should also put this issue on the international scene, urging similar and complimentary work in Australia by the Bushfire CRC and up in Canada too.


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