Increased rates of cancer in fire fighters

Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) found in a recent study that a combined population of 30,000 fire fighters from 3 large US cities had higher rates of several types of cancers, & of all cancers combined, than the U.S. population. The findings were reported in an article posted on-line last month, by the peer- reviewed journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The new findings are generally consistent with the results of several previous, smaller studies.

The new study had a larger study population followed for a longer period of time so the results strengthen the scientific evidence for a relation between fire fighting & cancer, the researchers said. The study analysed cancers & cancer deaths through 2009 among 29,993 fire fighters from the Chicago,
Philadelphia, and San Francisco fire departments who were employed since 1950. The study was led by NIOSH in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Public Health Sciences in the University of California at Davis. The study was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Fire Administration.

Fire fighters can be exposed to contaminants from fires that are known or suspected to cause cancer. These contaminants include combustion by- products such as benzene & formaldehyde, and materials in debris such as asbestos from older structures. This is why we need our engineering designers of today’s buildings & structures to use products that are not likely to liberate such toxins on fire degradation and still perform the job that is required by the material.

The researchers found that:

  • Cancers of the respiratory, digestive, & urinary systems accounted mostly for the higher rates of cancer seen in the study population. The higher rates suggest that fire fighters are more likely to develop those cancers.
  • The population of fire fighters in the study had a rate of mesothelioma 2 times greater than the rate in the U.S. population as a whole. This was the first study ever to identify an excess of mesothelioma in U.S. fire fighters. The researchers said it was likely that the findings were associated with exposure to asbestos, a known cause of mesothelioma.

The findings of the new study did not address other factors that can influence risk for cancer, such as smoking, diet, & alcohol consumption. In addition, few women & minorities were in the study population, limiting the ability to draw statistical conclusions about their risk for cancer. In a second phase of the study, the researchers will further examine employment records from the 3 fire departments, to understand the occupational exposures, & to look at exposures in relation to cancer incidence & mortality. How much do you know about the products in your workplace that degrade & pose risks for fire fighters on burning?

Article by: Julie Armour –

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