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Mesothelioma Cancer and Firefighters

mesothelioma cancerMesothelioma cancer strikes firefighters at double the rate of the rest of the population according to a startling new study.   Mesothelioma is a lethal form of cancer with only one known cause – inhaling asbestos dust.

Nearly 30,000 firefighters from the San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia fire departments were tracked for five years. The study started in 2010 and ended in 2015. The collected data was analyzed and the findings have been released.

Mesothelioma Cancer Becomes Focus of Top US Health Agencies

A clearer understanding of the risk of mesothelioma cancer for firefighters was the goal of the study.  To ensure that the study was as comprehensive and thorough as possible, it involved the collaboration of twp major US government health agencies.  Although the study was initiated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), researchers from the National Cancer Institute also participated.  Scientists from the University of California, Davis Department of Public Health Sciences also were involved.   The U.S. Fire Administration helped underwrite the costs of the study.

Increased Mesothelioma Cancer Risk and Other Key Findings

Besides the shocking rate of mesothelioma cancer at double that of the rest of the population, firefighters also faced higher risks of other types of cancer.  Here are the key findings from the firefighters study:

Firefighters Cancer Risks Compared to the US Population

Firefighters faced higher rates of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths than the rest of the US population

  • Mesothelioma cancer is joined by other types of respiratory cancers as well as urinary, digestive and oral cancers as affecting fire fighters more than the general population.
  • Mesothelioma cancer, considered rare in the general population, is double among firefighters compared to non-firefighters. Firefighters’ exposure to asbestos is the cause.
  • Younger firefighters are at a higher risk for certain cancers than older firefighters. These cancers include bladder and prostate at higher than expected rates in firefighters who are under 65 years of age.
  • The odds of dying of lung cancer increased with the amount of time a firefighter spent fighting fires
  • The odds of dying from leukemia increased with the number of fires a firefighter fought

Mesothelioma Cancer Prevention Steps For Firefighters

Mesothelioma cancer and other cancers can be tragic causes of premature death when faced b y the general population.  But for firefighters, whose jobs demand that they risk their lives for the sake of others, to double their risk of cancer as a result compounds the tragedy.

Without doubt, every effort needs to be made to protect firefighters from hazardous occupational exposure that can cause cancer.  The study states that fire services need to provide better training to firefighters on how to reduce their risk. It further suggests that firefighters should receive specific training on using protective clothing and respiratory devices at all times when they are at a fire site.

The study authors encourage firefighters to share the study findings with their doctor.  “It is important that your doctor is kept aware of possible job-related health concerns,” the conclusion states.

Why Firefighters Are Getting Cancer More Now

Mesothelioma cancer and other cancer deaths among fire fighters have risen steadily since the 1950s. Why? A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly says our possessions are to blame. The shift to using more synthetic materials in home furnishings and products creates toxic smoke when they burn.

“A century ago, we furnished our houses with wood, cloth, metal, and glass. Today, it’s plastics, foams, and coatings—all of which create a toxic soup of carcinogens when they burn. Fire experts say synthetic materials create hundreds of times more smoke than organic ones; flame retardants alone double the amount of smoke and increase toxic gasses 10-fold. Your TV, your kid’s Barbie, your Saran wrap, your couch: all of them can be poisonous when they’re ignited and their fumes are inhaled,” the article explains.

Tracking Mesothelioma Cancer and Other Cancers in Firefighters

Mesothelioma cancer rates and other cancers in firefighters were determined in the NIOSH study through careful statistical analysis.  The statistical analysis process involved four steps described by the researchers.

Step 1.  The researchers compiled their study population. They combed the records of the fire departments in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago to come up with their list of 29,993 fire fighters who were on active duty until 2009.

Step 2.  The researchers obtained US cancer and death records through 2009. From this information, they were able to pinpoint when and how former firefighters had died and what the causes of death were.  They double-checked with each state’s cancer registry data to confirm which firefighters  were diagnosed with cancer.

The cancers associated with firefighters included cancers of the lung, including mesothelioma cancer,  stomach, esophagus, brain,  intestines, rectum,  kidney , bladder prostate, testes, leukemia, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Step 3.  The researchers next calculated each of the nearly 30,000 firefighter’s potential job exposures.  These measures included:

Exposed days: the number of days each firefighter worked in a job or at a location

Fire runs: the total number of fires each firefighter from the Chicago and Philadelphia Fire Departments went to

Fire hours: the total time spent at fires by each firefighter from the Chicago Fire Department

Step 4. To come up with rates of risk, the researchers compared illness rates of several groups. They compared cancer diagnoses and death rates among:

Firefighters Compared to U.S. and State Populations

Firefighters with more days of being exposed to fires compared to those with fewer

Firefighters from the Chicago and Philadelphia groups who went to more fires compared to those who went to fewer

Chicago firefighters who were at fires for longer periods of time compared to those who were there less

The fact that firefighters suffer double the cancer rate as the rest of the citizenry is another deadly reminder that exposure to toxic chemicals must be monitored and controlled. The toxic soup of chemicals firefighters are often exposed to when fighting a blaze can include the deadly mineral asbestos. Asbestos leads to mesothelioma cancer which kills its victims and has no known cure at this time.  Hopefully with studies like this more firefighters can and will protect their lives through safety  protocols, precautions including the right equipment and clothing, and continued rigorous training about the chemicals they face every time they answer a call of duty.





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