Growing body of research points to reproductive health problems for female firefighters

One study showed 27 percent of pregnancies among female firefighters ended in miscarriage

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USFS engine crew Descanso, CA 1990
The US Forest Service engine crew at Descanso, California in 1990.

(This article was first published by

By Zoya Teirstein

When Sophia Huston started working as a hotshot — a specialized wildland firefighter with advanced technical training — she was 19 and didn’t know what she was getting herself into. She was physically fit and worked out regularly, but she wasn’t ready for preseason training, when the U.S. Forest Service, the agency she worked for, weeds out the unprepared with intense and physically demanding drills. “You’re going on hikes with full gear and chainsaws,” she said. “I weigh about 115 pounds and I’m carrying about upwards of 80 pounds of gear up a hill. I’m feeling the stress on my body and joints. I’m waking up in the middle of the night to eat food because I can’t get enough calories in.”

Shortly after the training began, Huston got what would be her last menstrual cycle of the fire season. She’s been working in fire for six years now and hasn’t gotten her period for the past three years, which she speculates is due to lack of sleep, poor quality of food, and the physical strain of the job. She doesn’t know what the long-term repercussions of working in the fire service are on her health and fertility. “I just know it’s not good for you,” she said. “It’s not very conducive to fertility and reproductive health.” New research suggests that Huston’s hunch is spot-on.

Smoke, heat, fire-suppressing chemicals, and the physical exertion required to put out and control fires all have effects on humans, but the body of published research on how firefighting affects health is astonishingly small. Studies have shown that being exposed to smoke in general is linked to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. But little is known about the cumulative impacts of fighting fires year after year, whether soot and other compounds can get absorbed through the skin and cause health problems, and how, exactly, smoke impacts the body in the long-term.

The ways in which fighting fire, and fire itself, affect women are even less understood. Women make up a tiny fraction of the national fire service, both in structural fire departments — the local departments that put out house fires — and the wildland crews that fight fires that occur in the wilderness and areas where wildland meets urban zones. They operate in a system that was built for and around men. And despite evidence that even short-term smoke exposure can affect pregnancy outcomes, female firefighters receive little to no information from their employers on how fire could impact fertility or pregnancy. “Nobody says, ‘smoke is bad, don’t stand there,’” Megan Saylors, a career wildland firefighter for a federal agency, told Grist. “It’s just such an accepted part of our work environment.”

A recent study published in the journal Environmental Health builds on the slim body of research on how work in the fire service specifically affects the reproductive health of women, and trans and nonbinary people who can get pregnant. By analyzing nearly 2,000 pregnancies in more than 1,000 female firefighters, the study found that self-reported miscarriage was 2.3 times more common among female firefighters than it was among female nurses, a cohort that is exposed to similar chemicals and work strains. Twenty-two percent of female firefighters miscarried, compared to 10 percent of female nurses.

The results are similar to those of a 2018 analysis showing that 27 percent of pregnancies in a cohort of 1,821 female firefighters ended in miscarriage — higher than the miscarriage rate in the general population, which is 13.5 percent. But the new study went further by separating firefighters by volunteer versus career status and comparing structural firefighters to wildland firefighters.

The study found that, overall, volunteer firefighters had increased risk of miscarriage compared to career firefighters. And volunteer wildland firefighters had nearly three times the risk of miscarriage compared to career wildland firefighters. Less than 5 percent of career firefighters are women, and 84 percent of the female firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers, which means a disproportionate percentage of the women who fight fires in the U.S. may be at increased risk of miscarriage.

Alesia Jung, a postdoctoral student at the University of Arizona and the lead author of the study, told Grist that she was surprised by the results of her research. She had initially hypothesized that career firefighters would present with the highest risk of miscarriage, because those women are exposed to fires more often than volunteers. “Generally the assumption is that career firefighters who generally respond to more fires in a year would have greater occupational exposures than volunteer firefighters who typically serve smaller communities and may have a smaller amount of fire responses,” she said. “So it was really interesting to see that volunteer firefighters appeared to have a greater risk of miscarriage, and this did vary by wildland firefighter status.”

Jung said that more research needs to be done on why firefighters face such high rates of miscarriage and what can be done to better protect them. Current and former firefighters agree.

Saylors, who has worked on crews based in Alaska, southern Nevada, southern Utah, California, and Oregon, says she’s never worked for a department that had policies or advisories in place to inform women about the risks of the job to their pregnancies. “I know women who were still working on a fire engine doing wildland stuff eight months pregnant. But then you have other people who, as soon as they find out they’re pregnant, they stop doing operational stuff,” she said. “Structural departments and wildland agencies struggle with, what do we do with those women? When do we no longer go put out the fire? When do we no longer go help with a prescribed fire during pregnancy?” Saylors said federal firefighting agencies should collect and conduct research on fertility and put policies in place to protect employees based on that research.

Zora Thomas, a seasonal wildand firefighter working for the Forest Service, told Grist she wasn’t surprised that wildland firefighters face an increased risk of miscarriage due to the requirements of the job. “Exposure to smoke is so ubiquitous and unavoidable, and wearing a respirator really isn’t practical or even possible due to the intensity and duration of our working days,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise me that the obvious occupational hazards we face would have some impact on health and pregnancy, and I would expect that there are also impacts to male reproductive health.”

There’s some evidence that the fertility of male firefighters is also jeopardized by smoke and other hazards of the job. A 2019 study of Danish male firefighters found full-time firefighters were at greater risk of infertility than a comparison group of men in the military. Another study published in October that tracked male fertility in the general population following 10 days of unprecedented hazardous smoke in Oregon during the 2020 fire season found that semen quality greatly deteriorated following the onset of hazardous air quality. “Among male firefighters, reproductive issues are also a topic of concern,” Jung said. She hopes that future studies will help isolate the factors behind firefighters’ fertility problems and shift the status quo so women, and men, are better protected on the job.

Huston isn’t waiting around for the Forest Service to figure out how to better protect women. In December, she finished her sixth season as a hotshot in California. It’ll be her last. “I’m sad to leave but at the same time, I realized this year that I really care about my health, it’s one of my core values and almost everything we do seems to compromise my health,” she said. “Firefighting is a part of my life that I’m very thankful for, but I’m ready to get out.”

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16 thoughts on “Growing body of research points to reproductive health problems for female firefighters”

  1. There is risk involved in any and every action taken. Noone is to blame, except the individuals who makes a conscious decision to place themselves in harms way. The most astonishing part of the article is

    Nobody says, ‘smoke is bad, don’t stand there,’” Megan Saylors, a career wildland firefighter for a federal agency, told Grist. “It’s just such an accepted part of our work environment.”

    Ask individuals who are far below the accepted “average IQ”…..Yep…Go to a group of learning “disability” individuals. Ask them if breathing smoke is ok. So, in short, it’s part of the job. Last comment…The young lady interviewed complains about her weight to job tool and exertion ratio. Maybe, just maybe, you should have made a different career choice. But young lady, YOU chose that path. Have a wonderful day folks.

  2. I hope we can all remember these comments when reviewing the study’s that show increased cancer risk, suicide well above population averages, financial instability, inability to retain workforce etc for WFF.

    “You chose a career deal with it” is woefully inadequate. The woman in the article is dealing with it, by leaving the Agency with her years of experience on an IHC at a time when retention of WFF is exceptionally difficult.

    I hope we can agree that there is an expectation, often unmet, that the agency must protect employee safety when a hazard is identified.

  3. You have also proven, with this comment, that individuals with far below average IQs will trivialize the “other’s” experience any chance they get. Would you have written the above if the article was about a man?

    Most people are aware of gender bias in medical research so I applaud daylighting the issue. It’s something else for women to consider, in addition to dealing with sh*t attitudes like yours, when thinking about making a career in fire.

  4. “Nobody says, ‘smoke is bad, don’t stand there,’” Megan Saylors, a career wildland firefighter for a federal agency, told Grist.”
    Well, I personally know of a fire management officer in Oregon who lost his job because he suggested one of his female engine crew members, in early stages of pregnancy, should not be part of the holding crew on a prescribed burn because he didn’t want her eating smoke. She complained he was being sexist. Basically, “smoke is bad, don’t stand there” is EXACTLY what he said and he was punished for it. This occurred in the late 1990s.

  5. I don’t usually talk about this, but when I joined the Forest Service I was pregnant. Three Forest Service men attacked me, “packed” me, during a pack test and I lost my baby. You can judge me all you want and say I shouldn’t have taken the pack test, but I took the test because I could make more money doing the same job on P code. I did it to provide for my child. But it really comes down to the fact that those men did not want me there and they attacked me to show me how much they hated women. Long, story short, years later I was fired, but I wasn’t the only one. Many women were fired for being harassed, assaulted, raped, and for being pregnant. This is still going on. Women report that they are pregnant and then they are fired. Some women even choose to have an abortion to keep their jobs. I support the young lady in this article for leaving. Maybe one day the Forest Service will wake up and admit it has a problem and make the necessary changes. Not for me, but at least for the next generation.

  6. Smoke has been an issue from the beginning, and I do mean the very beginning, I always thought someone should out and just say that smoke is bad for you, and by someone, I mean someone from MTDC, but we know that is never going to happen, not ever. There is no way to mitigate the hazard and still fight fire effectively, I am not aware of any unsaid technology, FF’s need to breath, heck I feel restricted just wearing a mask for covid, there is now enough information out there that we all can make an informed decision….. Yes smoke is very bad for you……It’s a life taker….I wish I would have done a better job of documenting all of my severe exposure’s…..You need to take care of your selves…..,exposures%20that%20exceed%20the%20levels%20identified%20as%20safe.

    And here is one from the CDC…

  7. Wow! Really Gary? Please tell us you are no longer employed in the wildland fire service. “Have a wonderful day…”

  8. N95 masks fit readily between the webbing and the top of your helmet. I started using one occasionally several years ago, and have become a true believer. They make a difference in my black snot and morning cough levels. I wear the mask when I want to- dense smoke, powdery dry mop-up- then I put it back into the helmet. It makes a big difference. Simple, easy. Smoke it bad. Everyone can easily do this and promote it among their peers. I keep a box handy, wave it around at briefings or AARs and hand them out to anyone interested.

  9. Sorry for your loss and trauma. Could you explain but being “packed” is though.

  10. Yeah, so basically packed or boxed in, is when people slow you down by getting in front or behind or to the side of you. In my case, one was in front, 1 was to my left, and 1 was to my right, and then they tripped me and started kicking my back, stomach, and head. They called me horrible names and told me I didn’t belong in fire. It was horrible. The sad thing is I’m not the only person that they did this to. I wish the FS would stop this practice. I wish they would just except women as equals, instead of punishing us, because we are different.

  11. This is shocking! And horrifying! I’m sorry this happened to you.

    To this layman it sounds like criminal assault and battery. I don’t know what the statute of limitations is on criminal assault, but I wonder if you or others who suffered this abuse on the job have any legal recourse.

    Given all the stories of abuse, harassment and misogyny coming out of the USFS and other federal land mngt agencies in recent years, I encourage women who want to be professional firefighters to consider Cal Fire. No, they are not perfect of course. Over my 30 years there were challenges at the agency level and within crews as more and more women entered the ranks. We suffered our share of misogynistic a-holes for sure. But I worked within and witnessed first hand an agency/station culture that respected women and supported women within it’s ranks. Respected all it’s personnel in fact.

    My first day on the job, way back in 1978, I was greeted at the station door by a female seasonal firefighter who quickly became a mentor and close professional friend as I began my career. To this day women function at every level within the agency. I’m confident in saying nothing like what you describe would go unpunished, no less allowed to happen in the first place.

    These days, now working within a small rural local govt fire department, all I see is respect, loyalty and camaraderie among female and male staff. Women are welcomed and supported in real fire agencies.

    Those who assaulted you are a stain on the profession, not worthy of the title Firefighter.

  12. Bruce,
    Yes, it’s assault, it’s a crime, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it. The problem is that the NPS/FS is a closed system, meaning if you report it to LEI or civil rights it gets back to the criminals. To add to it, there are people who will protect the perpetrators. Some are enablers, some are protectors, and some are just trying to keep their jobs. (Think Epstein but on a larger scale.) The problem…if they keep protecting these people nothing will change. There is a legal solution, but it is long, costly, and to the point, broken. A victim can go to EEOC and/or MSPB, but there is not currently a board at the MSPB, so the Administrated Judges cannot rule. I have been fighting for over 5 years. It’s cost me a lot of money and my career. I have been black-balled and I’m completely broke. The agencies know all this, that is why they get away with it, because no one can afford the fight. Justice is not free. In fact, it’s pretty costly. Oh, or you can go to Congress, but they just nod their heads and do absolutely nothing!!! NOTHING!!! And all you’ve done is put a target on your back! I respect your story. I wish there were a lot more good men out there. I wish there were more women in firefighting, but I get calls every day from women who are leaving the NPS/FS because they are being harassed, assaulted, and raped and when they become pregnant, they are faced with 3 choices: 1) continue to work, 2) quit, or 3) be fired. As for your comment on Cal Fire, I’ve heard horrible stories from them lately. (Weird thing is that many women leave Cal Fire because how they are treated there and go to NPS/FS to be treated worse.) One last thing, I made my earlier comment because I wanted people to know that miscarriages are more complicated than just smoke inhalation. I am an air quality specialist. I taught smoke management, I said smoke is bad. I told 100s, 1000s of students that you will lose 20 years off your life if you fight wildfires. We played games, so that they would remember about the dangers of smoke. (But after my first presentation, I skipped the baby slide. Maybe I was wrong for doing that, but my classes were mostly men (I think I only had 1 woman in 5 years), and the baby slide was scary, and it opened me up to horrible comments like…I’d put a baby in you! Yuck!!! I did talk about sterility…because burning plastics (BPAs) cause men to go sterile.) Anyway, back to the subject, what do you do with a woman who is pregnant? do you put her on the line knowing full well that she is breathing in toxic smoke? do you put her on desk duty? When I went to Fundamental at the NPS a woman LEI stood up and was very upset because her boss a male LEI put her on desk duty, because she was pregnant. Her boss stood up and said it was because he wanted to protect her. It was a very emotional moment. I was torn because I could see both sides. I think her boss really thought he was doing the right thing, but she felt like he didn’t care, because he had dismissed her work. Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is, but the NPS/FS better figure it out quick, because if Texas’ HB 8 and other laws like it continue, there are going to be a lot more women who are pregnant in the workplace, unless the plan is just to continue to fire women who are pregnant. Which is illegal…and the woman could file an EEOC/MSPB case. Sorry, I’ve rambled on and on and have apparently made a circular argument. I hope I made some sense. Peace Out!

  13. Yeh but only wildfires do this to female bodies, not Rx fire because Rx fire is safe, clean non-hazardous and sanitized, right?

    Females should file a class action suit and see where it takes them.

  14. Fed up Bro, “Rx fire is safe”…that’s funny! 🙂 As for “females file a class action suit” They have! It leaves us without a job, without a career, broke, and homeless. As I said before, the system is broken.

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