Job exposure puts firefighters at risk
The exposure involves carcinogenic compounds.
Firefighters are significantly more likely than workers in other fields to develop four different types of cancer, according to a new analysis of data for 110,000 professional firefighters.
The findings suggest that traditional protective gear used by firefighters may not be effective in shielding them from cancer-causing agents.
"We believe there's a direct correlation between the chemical exposures firefighters experience on the job and their increased risk for cancer," said Grace LeMasters, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Cincinnati and lead author of the report published Friday in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
The researchers found that firefighters are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer and have significantly higher rates of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and prostate cancer than nonfirefighters. The researchers also confirmed earlier findings that firefighters have a greater risk for multiple myeloma.
Those working fire scenes are exposed to many carcinogenic compounds, including benzene, diesel engine exhaust, chloroform, soot, styrene and formaldehyde, LeMasters noted. The substances can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and occur at both the scene of a fire and in the firehouse, where idling trucks can produce dangerous levels of exhaust.
"Firefighters work in an inherently dangerous occupation on a daily basis. As public servants, they need -- and deserve -- additional protective measures that will ensure they aren't at an increased cancer risk."
Looking for a link
Although researchers have found lots of exposure to hazardous chemicals among firefighters, linking those exposures to specific disease risk has been difficult. For instance, a Johns Hopkins University study completed late last year tracked fire crews in one Maryland county exposed to toxic smoke during training exercise for eight years. They found slightly higher rates of cancers, but couldn't come up with a dose relationship to the time spent around the smoke.
The Hopkins researchers urged that a large, formal study of cancer incidence among firefighters be done on a national scale, perhaps by federal health authorities.
For the University of Cincinnati study, LeMasters and colleagues analyzed data from 32 previously published scientific studies measuring cancer rates for a total of 110,000 firefighters, most of them full-time and white males. They classified risk for 20 different cancers as probable, possible or not likely for firefighters and other workers.
The epidemiologists found that half the studied cancers --- including the four mentioned earlier ---plus skin, brain, rectal, stomach, colon and malignant melanoma -- were linked with firefighting on varying levels of increased risk.
"There's a critical and immediate need for additional protective equipment to help firefighters avoid inhalation and skin exposures," said Dr. James Lockey, a professor of environmental health and pulmonary medicine at the university.
He also recommends that after a lengthy call or at the end of a shift, "firefighters should meticulously wash their entire body to remove soot and other residues from fires to avoid skin exposure."