In the world of emergency response, firefighters are often hailed as heroes, bravely rushing into burning buildings to save lives and property. However, behind the valor and selflessness lies a hidden danger—one that is increasingly gaining attention: the elevated risk of cancer among firefighters.

    Over the years, studies have revealed alarming statistics indicating that firefighters face a significantly higher likelihood of developing various types of cancer. In this article, we delve into the complex relationship between firefighting and cancer risk. We will explore the underlying causes, potential solutions, and firefighters’ challenges in safeguarding their health.

    Why Are Firefighters More Susceptible to Cancer?

    Firefighters are exposed to many carcinogens and toxins during their line of duty. When battling blazes, they encounter a cocktail of harmful substances, including but not limited to asbestos, formaldehyde, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These carcinogens are released into the air through smoke and soot, which firefighters inevitably inhale or absorb through their skin.

    Moreover, the very tools of their trade—such as fire-retardant clothing, gloves, and helmets—can harbor carcinogenic residues, further increasing their exposure risk. Another tool they use is Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF). AFFF contains per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

    As stated by a New Hampshire government website, AFFF contains different amounts of PFAS chemicals. Regardless of the amount, these fluorine-based AFFFs concern human health, as they can be carcinogenic.

    Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are two common ingredients of PFAS-based AFFF. Both these substances are carcinogenic and can increase the risk of AFFF foam cancer.

    Therefore, many victims who are exposed to AFFF during their work have filed lawsuits. According to TorHoerman Law, major plaintiffs are firefighters and military personnel. They have faced higher risks of various forms of cancers, including bladder, breast, colon, and kidney.

    The Alarming Statistics: Quantifying the Risk

    The evidence linking firefighting to cancer is compelling. A CBS 58 news report highlights this link, mentioning a study by the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF).

    IAFF concluded in its study that firefighters are 9% more vulnerable to being diagnosed with cancer. Moreover, they have a 14% higher risk of dying from it compared to the general population. In fact, the news article states that cancer accounted for 74% of all line-of-duty deaths among firefighters in 2022.

    Common Types of Cancer Among Firefighters

    Firefighters are at an elevated risk of developing various types of cancer. In fact, the World Health Organization’s IARC has recognized that the occupational hazards of firefighters are carcinogenic. This shows that firefighters are more vulnerable to almost any type of cancer. However, certain forms are particularly prevalent within the firefighting community. These include:

    • Lung cancer: Due to exposure to smoke and toxic fumes, firefighters are at a significantly higher risk of developing lung cancer. Lung cancer and other lung diseases are a major cause of death among firefighters. Despite advancements in firefighting equipment aimed at minimizing exposure, the risk of lung cancer remains a pressing concern within the firefighting community.

    Efforts to mitigate this risk include developing and implementing better respiratory protection, rigorous decontamination procedures post-firefighting, etc. However, addressing the issue comprehensively requires a multifaceted approach involving improved workplace safety and greater awareness and support for firefighters’ healthcare needs.

    • Bladder cancer: Firefighters have been found to have a higher incidence of bladder cancer. This is likely due to exposure to chemicals such as benzene, which is known to affect bladder health.

    As stated by the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Group, firefighters are more likely to get bladder cancer. This is because they can breathe and inject more chemicals. These high levels of chemicals in the urine can be hazardous to the bladder’s endothelial lining. This increases the risk of developing transitional cell carcinoma (TCC).

    • Leukemia: The risk of leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells, is also elevated among firefighters, possibly due to exposure to benzene and other carcinogens. A study mentioned in The Guardian recently found that firefighters are thrice more likely to die from certain types of cancers. Among these, leukemia’s risk is 3.2 times higher than non-firefighters.
    • Skin cancer: Firefighting operations expose firefighters to intense heat and harmful UV radiation, which can significantly increase their susceptibility to developing skin cancer. The nature of firefighting work also exposes firefighters to prolonged periods of direct sunlight, especially during outdoor operations.

    Additionally, the reflective surfaces of buildings and vehicles can intensify UV exposure, further amplifying the risk. Protective gear such as helmets, goggles, and turnout gear protect against flames and debris. However, they may leave some areas of the skin vulnerable to skin problems.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Are All Firefighters at Risk of Developing Cancer?

    The risk varies depending on service duration, exposure extent, and individual susceptibility. However, all firefighters are potentially at risk due to the nature of their work. They are constantly exposed to numerous known and potential carcinogens, making them more vulnerable.

    What Steps Are Being Taken to Protect Firefighters From Cancer?

    Many fire departments have implemented preventive measures, such as rigorous decontamination protocols, providing specialized gear, and offering regular health screenings. Additionally, there is growing advocacy for legislative measures to enhance firefighter safety and access to healthcare.

    Can Cancer Risk Among Firefighters Be Completely Eliminated?

    Unfortunately, complete elimination of cancer risk is unlikely given the inherent hazards of firefighting. However, concerted efforts to minimize exposure, promote early detection, and provide comprehensive support can significantly reduce the incidence and impact of cancer.

    How Can Firefighters Protect Themselves From Cancer?

    Firefighters can protect themselves by adhering to safety protocols, using proper protective equipment, and practicing thorough decontamination procedures after exposure to smoke and chemicals. They should also prioritize their overall health and wellness through regular exercise, proper nutrition, and routine medical check-ups.

    To summarize, the link between firefighting and elevated cancer risk is undeniable. It poses a significant threat to the health and well-being of those who selflessly serve their communities. Addressing this issue requires a multifaceted approach encompassing enhanced safety measures, robust research initiatives, legislative advocacy, and comprehensive support systems.

    By recognizing the challenges posed by cancer for firefighters and taking proactive steps, we can honor their sacrifice and bravery. This will ensure their continued health and vitality in the line of duty.