It’s no secret that firefighting is a dangerous job.
Each year dozens of names are added to the Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial run by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). Between 2019 and 2020, 469 firefighters were added to the wall in Colorado Springs. But while most would have the idea that firefighters made that sacrifice in burning buildings, the truth is much more concerning.
Of those 469 names added, 75 percent of those firefighters on the memorial wall died of occupational cancer.
The reason why is very simple: in an uncontrolled environment like a fire, a firefighter is exposed to heat, smoke and toxicants. Fires release a number of hazardous substances that are common in construction, and many are on the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) carcinogenic agents list. Often these agents can be transported back to firehouses, meaning exposure doesn’t stop when firefighters leave the scene.
Among the most dangerous of the carcinogenic agents are arsenic, asbestos and benzene, which are under IARC’s Group 1 agents. Asbestos alone is the leading cause of mesothelioma, arsenic has been linked to skin cancer, and benzene is known to cause leukemia. Other Group 1 agents firefighters come into contact with include cadmium, formaldehyde, silica, soot and PCBs, among several others.
Even the exhaust from diesel engines, which firefighters are exposed to from their own fire trucks, is a Group 1 carcinogenic. The Center for Disease Control in the US says the exposure to firefighters is constant, and being around the exhaust is associated with the development of lung cancer.
Firefighters are exposed to a number of Group 2 agents, which while don’t have a direct link to cancer, are at least suspected of having a connection. Aside from things like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, poly-fluoroalkyl substances, and dioxins, the byproducts of fire are also suspected to be carcinogenic. Products of biomass fuel combustion as well as creosote, a byproduct of burning wood, are listed as Group 2 carcinogens. Even the shiftwork associated with firefighting, and the circadian rhythm disruption it causes, is on this list.
For this reason, the IARC classifies firefighting as a Group 1 risk to cancer. In other words, firefighting and cancer are directly linked.
This is why the IAFF has worked to prevent cancer exposure in the profession. Proper cleaning of firefighting equipment, proper application of equipment for both men and women, and wellness initiatives are all part of the work the group is doing to help prevent cancer. That is why January is Fire Fighter Cancer Awareness Month.
Check out the resources from the IAFF here.