Study finds firefighters more likely to get two types of cancer

According to a recently published study, firefighters in three major municipal fire departments were more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer and leukemia than the general population.

Researchers examined the firefighting exposure and medical histories of 20,000 firefighters with over 1,300 cancer-related deaths and 2,600 cancer incidence cases in Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco who were on duty between the years 1950 and 2009. This was one of the largest studies of its kind, and was the first to relate the time elapsed during fire runs to cancer risk.

Among eight types of cancers examined, they found slight, but statistically significant positive exposure–responses for lung cancer and leukemia risk. The researchers wrote:

These findings contribute to the evidence of a causal association between firefighting exposures and cancer.

The study did not address the health effects on wildland firefighters who, unlike structural firefighters, do not have access to an effective breathing apparatus to provide them clean air to inhale into their lungs. There could also be significant differences between the harmful effects of vegetation smoke and that produced by materials in structure fires.

Some wildland firefighters, especially those on hand crews, are routinely exposed to smoke-filled air for hours each day when assigned to a large fire, sometimes for 14 days. At other times they can be stationed in a smoky environment 24 hours a day for weeks at a time when inversions trap smoke. This frequently occurs in northwestern California, for example on the Six Rivers, Klamath, and Shasta-Trinity National Forests. In those cases even non-firefighters working in administrative positions at the Incident Base have been adversely affected by breathing contaminated air.

As we wrote in January, 2011:

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.

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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.

8 thoughts on “Study finds firefighters more likely to get two types of cancer”

  1. About everyone I knew who served on a municipal fire department in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s died of cancer. Most never made it to age 65.

    Cancer clusters
    I don’t have any details in front of me but there are several known cancer clusters among municipal fire departments.:

    In the 1950’s a sporting goods warehouse fire in San Francisco. It is believed the cancer cluster may be attributed to burning ping pong balls.

    1970’s a fire in a fertilizer plant in FLorida.

    1975 New York Telephone Exchange Fire (New York City). Mixed data and a lot of hype.

    Palmetto Street Fire Brooklyn NY (not sure of date) underground transformer fire.

    The last count I have seen is 153 Firefighters, Police Officers and Paramedics dead from cancer as the result of operating at the World Trade Center site. Many others are sick.

    A very good read is Deborah Wallace’s 1990 book “In the Mouth of the Dragon: Toxic Fires in the Age of Plastics” its out of print but used copies are available on amazon.

  2. The Forest Service was doing this in the early 2000’s. It was the CHS program. Unfortunately, the contract was written as such that when it ran out the contractor kept all the baseline and check-up data. Another great FS contract.

  3. Wildland firefighters are not only exposed to high levels of air borne particulate matter in smoke, but also experience extensive exposure to larger particles when mopping up, hiking on “moon dust” lines, etc. I would not be surprised at all to find that there is an increased risk of pulmonary diseases and cancer. Other than abstaining from engagement in cases of heavy smoke or dust, there is no way to work in this industry without exposure.

    Of course, you would have to control the results to omit instances of excessive use of tobacco products so many of our fellow firefighters find appealing…

  4. There have been other studies that have linked high incidents of cancer and reduced lifespan to structural firefighters. . They are exposed to smoke, a wide variety of chemical agents and toxic matter. SCBA’s have been around since the early 50’s but common and then required use of them did not come into effect until 1970s. As a member of a Volunteer FD in the 80s I found many did not wear SCBA’s as they were considered not macho. As a kid late fifties, early sixties I hung out around the local fire fighters and they also lived a less then healthy life style, heavy smoking, excessive alcohol and bad diets. I have no doubt that wild land FF are impacted by smoke exposure and would look forward to study results.

  5. Believe it or not, there is a growing group of firefighters that is not afraid to tackle this issue.

    While most of this is structure fire related, there is a growing movement of federal and state wildland folks that are coming forward and trying to bring more awareness of this.

    In addition to that the NFPA is in the final stages of releasing information about the effects of smoke on wildland firefighters and developing a standard that will help us when we are stuck holding or other situations that make it so we cannot avoid the smoke.

    Not sure when that info is due out, but if I hear about it before Bill, I’ll be sure to pass it on.

  6. Well, Bill

    If USFS and USDOI did just that like they do “investigations” of airtanker crashes…… about all those studies, FLA’s AAR’s, Lessons Learned….what has gotten the community?

    Eventually, after I depart the Earth, there will not be enough backfill in the natural resources field to interest today’s youth to be interested in the fire world……like many aircraft mechanic schools……….hope I am wrong

    Those agencies would be heroes sewing that subject up.

    That is what makes a LEADER ……not being afraid of tackling tough subjects…easy to regulate and pontificate on the airtanker world and contracting…even less on taking care of your own personnel.

    Problem is transparency and doing something, the RIGHT thing….is pretty far away.

    We will continue to have human error in aviation…us pilots and mechanics realize that every day….time for the “leadership” in the fire world do what we have done for years….facing up to reality.

  7. There is grant money out there…problem becomes either creating new offices and positions without direction in many agencies thereby diluting any true resolutions

    But that is the equivalent of….wait for it…anyone listening or addressing???

    NFA and others have done many a study.

    If we had as many studies as in the airtanker program…..this MAY have been addressed by now……

    But others know better than folks reading this website…..just ask em!!

    1. Most leaders are afraid to tackle something like this, thinking, “Don’t ask the question if you don’t want to hear the answer”. If a study finds a high cancer rate among wildland firefighters, then they would be forced to do something — an unacceptable outcome for too many leaders.

      What if…. a study found that more wildland firefighters die of smoke exposure than there are pilots killed in air tanker crashes?


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