Firefighters face unique occupational health risks. In addition to chronic exposure to heat, smoke and toxic flame retardants, firefighters are subjected to aerosolized chemicals like benzene, asbestos, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), formaldehyde, diesel exhaust, and new building materials with undefined chemicals. These toxins are inhaled, ingested and absorbed through the skin, significantly increasing risk for many cancers.
How Great is the Cancer Risk?
Firefighters have higher rates of many cancer types, including bladder, brain, colon, leukemia, lymphoma, non-hodgkin lymphoma, lung, kidney, melanoma, multiple myeloma, prostate and testis. Studies have found:
- A 60% increased risk for lung cancer among firefighters
- A six-fold increase in breast cancer among female firefighters
- After 20 years of service, firefighters had an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma and colon and kidney cancer.
- After 30 years of service, firefighters have an increased risk of leukemia and cancer of the colon and brain cancer.
- After 40 years of service, firefighters have an increased risk of bladder cancer and all precious cancers.
- Exposure to smoke on top of the occupational exposures of firefighting increases the risk of lung and smoking-related cancers.
In a Roswell Park study of 100 Buffalo firefighters from two firehouses, researchers found that even at fires with low smoke intensity (as measured by air samples) firefighters were exposed to appreciable levels of toxic materials, including carbon monoxide, benzene, aldehydes and hydrogen cyanide.
The accumulation of this evidence has led to federal approval of the National Cancer Registry for Firefighters and additional laws in New York State supporting cancer treatment for both professional and volunteer firefighters.
Take Charge of Your Health
If you are a firefighter, cancer screenings and other early detection strategies are especially important. Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center recommends all firefighters undergo a comprehensive medical exam each year by their primary care physician at the physician’s office or healthcare facility. This is important because your personal healthcare provider collects data about your health behaviors and your family cancer and medical history. Be sure to tell your provider that you are, or have been, a firefighter and how many years you served. This yearly exam should include:
- Comprehensive physical assessment
- Laboratory testing including blood tests and urinalysis
- Pulmonary function test
- Imaging such as chest x-ray (every 5 years) or low dose CT if indicated
- Cancer screenings for early detection of prostate, cervical, colorectal, breast and lung cancer.
Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center fully supports cancer screening and early detection for firefighters with the belief that this will lead to better survival, more effective treatment options and improved quality of life for all firefighters.