Life-Saving Work Puts Firefighters at Elevated Risk of Developing Cancer

Firefighters put their lives on the line every day. However, their leading cause of death isn’t directly related to the risk of physical harm inherent to their life-saving work. Surprisingly, cancer is the leading cause of death among career and volunteer firefighters, and research clearly shows that high levels of exposure to carcinogens could be one of the most dangerous things about fighting fires.

These troubling findings raise the question of whether current preventive measures are enough and highlight the need to protect firefighters from unseen occupational risks.

Firefighters and Cancer Risks: What Do the Numbers Say?

A comprehensive multi-year study that ran from 2010 to 2015 found that firefighters had a significantly higher risk of developing certain cancers. The findings, published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in partnership with the National Cancer Institute, revealed that firefighters were 9% more likely to develop cancer compared to the general population and 14% more likely to die from cancer.1

These findings are consistent with data published by the International Association of Fire Fighters. According to the IAFF, 72% of firefighter deaths recorded in 2023 were caused by occupational cancers.2

Research also shows that career firefighters have an elevated risk of developing some forms of cancer that are far less common among the general population, clearly showing the existence of occupational hazards unique to firefighters.

For instance, a meta-analysis of several studies published in Safety and Health at Work (Volume 14, Issue 2, June 2023) draws attention to high digestive, oral, respiratory, and urinary cancer rates among career firefighters.

This meta-analysis also found that firefighters were 83% more likely to develop melanoma, 81% more likely to suffer from prostate cancer, and twice more likely to develop kidney or testicular cancer compared to the average person.3

What Makes Firefighters More Vulnerable to Cancer?

The answer is exposure to carcinogenic chemicals released during fires. In other words, firefighters often breathe in vapor or smoke that contains carcinogens. Exposure can be difficult to prevent since these harmful toxins remain in the air even after a fire. Smoke doesn’t have to be visible for dangerous carcinogens to be present in the air, which can result in a false sense of safety and cause firefighters to remove their self-contained breathing apparatus.

Exposure can also happen through direct contact with soot. Even though firefighters wear protective equipment, dermal contact with soot will likely happen when removing this gear. In fact, a study from the International Association of Fire Fighters found elevated levels of carcinogens present in fire stations, suggesting that contamination is a widespread issue.4

Once these dangerous carcinogens enter the human body through inhalation, ingestion, or dermal contact, they interact with cells and cause mutations. While carcinogens can have a benign effect on cells when exposure levels are low or infrequent, repeated exposure to these dangerous toxins strongly increases the risk of cell mutations turning into cancerous growth.

Chronic stress is another possible factor contributing to the higher-than-average cancer rates observed among firefighters. With the U.S. Fire Administration reporting more than 30 deaths a year linked to heart disease, a significant percentage of firefighters likely suffer from a weakened immune system as a result of experiencing chronic stress.5

Why Do Fires Release So Many Carcinogens?

Organic materials rarely combust completely during a fire. Instead, these materials form soot as a result of incomplete combustion. According to the National Cancer Institute, soot contains several known carcinogens, including chromium, arsenic, and cadmium.6

Exposure to soot happens when responding to wildfires as well as structural fires. However, modern homes can be even more dangerous due to the presence of synthetic materials. Plastic, foam, and other materials can release extremely high levels of toxic substances when burning, with flame retardant coatings alone doubling the amount of smoke created during a fire, according to the Atlantic.7

Construction materials can also release dangerous substances. For instance, Aluminum Composite Material (ACM) can become friable at high temperatures and release asbestos fibers into the air.

Are Current Protective Measures Enough to Keep Firefighters Safe?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and National Fire Protection Association have some strict requirements that outline the kind of protective equipment firefighters should wear. These requirements also set minimal levels of protection for different scenarios and explain how the equipment should perform.

OSHA and FPA requirements include wearing turnout gear with an overlapping jacket and pants that use three layers of material. Firefighters should also wear puncture-resistant gloves, a fire hood, a fire helmet, and a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

However, official requirements fail to specify how firefighters should remove and clean PPE after a fire to prevent dermal exposure to soot.

Some fire departments are also opting to invest in air-purifying respirators or powered air-purifying respirators to offer more protection than N95 masks. In fact, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommends using air-purifying respirators when responding to wildland fires, but it’s not an official requirement.8

Besides investing in more performing PPE, fire departments can prevent carcinogenic exposure by focusing on training and best practices. For instance, developing stricter guidelines for decontaminating gear after responding to a fire could go a long way in preventing dermal exposure to soot.

It’s also important to raise awareness regarding the elevated risks firefighters are facing. Encouraging regular health checkups with comprehensive screenings for different types of cancer could support early detection, which can result in a survival rate as high as 90% for some cancers, according to the Canary Foundation.9

Professional organizations such as MNFire, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Volunteer Fire Council, and the Firefighter Cancer Support Network are doing important work by spreading awareness of risks and recommending preventive measures. Reaching out to these organizations is a great first step for fire departments looking to do more to protect their firefighters.

Firefighters, Cancer, and Workers’ Comp Claims

A cancer diagnosis can be a shattering experience, but it’s important to remember that treatment and support options are available.

One of these options is to file a worker’s comp claim to receive financial compensation. A workers’ comp claim can cover lost wages, medical bills, and more. Due to the extensive amount of research showing the connection between fighting fires and elevated risks of cancer, several states, including Minnesota, have statutes that classify cancer as an occupational disease for firefighters, facilitating the process of filing a worker’s comp claim and obtaining benefits.

However, filing one of these claims and obtaining compensation can be a complex and lengthy process. It’s best to seek legal representation to navigate this process and maximize benefits. Besides, working with an experienced attorney can give you the peace of mind you need to focus on your cancer treatment.