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Study Links Firefighters To Increased Cancer Risk

May 9, 2008

A new study adding evidence that fire fighting carries greater hazards beyond the fires themselves suggests that firefighters face higher-than-average risks of several types of cancer.

Several studies show elevated cancer rates in firefighters, but there is inconsistency in the specific types of cancer related.

The current study found that professional firefighters had higher-than-expected rates of colon cancer and brain cancer. There was also lesser evidence that they had elevated risks of bladder and kidney cancers, as well as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, researchers said.

Firefighters are exposed to many potentially cancer-causing substances such as benzene, lead, uranium and asbestos that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Many of these toxic chemicals are released through burning materials at the scene of the fire.

Firefighters wear protective equipment like breathing apparatuses when battling fire, but they seldom wear the gear when they’re merely in the general vicinity of the blaze.

Researchers looked at nearly two decades’ worth of data from the Massachusetts cancer registry where between 1986 and 2003 at least 2,125 cancer diagnoses were found among professional male firefighters.

The study noted that firefighters had nearly twice the risk of brain cancer and a 36 percent higher risk of colon cancer compared with men in other occupations. Higher risks of bladder cancer, kidney cancer and Hodgkin’s lymphoma were also found, but the evidence was weaker due, in part, to the relatively small number of cases.

Greater efforts to protect firefighters from the toxic substances that may be fueling these elevated cancer rates have been called for by some researchers. They suggest including less cumbersome protective equipment that firefighters can keep on when they are near a fire.

Experts also say firefighters should shower as soon as they return to the firehouse, in order to remove contaminated soot from their skin.

Dr. Letitia Davis with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in Boston, and colleagues reported the findings in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

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American Journal of Industrial Medicine




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