Firefighters are at an increased risk of developing cancer. There are steps to take that can reduce that risk.
All firefighters, regardless whether they are career or volunteer, put their own lives at risk to save others in their communities. In addition to the danger of putting out fires, firefighters are at an increased risk for different types of cancer due to the smoke and hazardous chemicals they are exposed to in the line of duty. There have been multiple studies that show this increased risk for cancer.
Share this information to help raise awareness. Order free copies of our Firefighters and Cancer Risk postcard to distribute at your local firehouse.
Why is there a risk for cancer?
Modern homes and buildings contain many synthetic and plastic materials which create more smoke when burning than natural materials. When materials burn, they release a number of carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a group of more than 100 chemicals. Exposure to some PAHs can cause cancer. Firefighters may also encounter other known carcinogens such as asbestos and diesel exhaust. These carcinogens can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
Wearing the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), including self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA), offers protection and lessens exposure. However, toxic chemicals can still penetrate the turnout gear and expose the skin to toxins.
Firefighter Cancer Registry. Due to new legislation passed in July 2018, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) will create a registry of firefighters to track links between workplace exposures and cancer. With the data collected by this registry, researchers will be able to better understand the risk of cancer among firefighters. Click here for more information.
As a firefighter, what can I do to reduce my risk of cancer?
Protect yourself at work. As a firefighter, you may be used to putting others before yourself, but your own health and safety are important too. Protect yourself at work by taking steps to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals:
- Reduce exposure to diesel exhaust from the fire apparatus.
- Use and maintain diesel exhaust containment or removal systems.
- Open bay doors before the engine starts.
- Keep open bay doors upon return until after engine is shut off.
- Do not allow apparatus to idle inside the station.
- Keep the doors to the station office and living areas closed. Assure they are properly sealed.
- Conduct a daily apparatus check outside, if the apparatus engine needs to be running
- Clean and care for PPE and SCBA properly.
- Clean PPE following NFPA 1851 and manufacturer’s recommendations after every fire.
- Maintain and test SCBA daily to ensure its properly functioning.
- Use SCBA and remain on air through the end of overhaul and if exposed to smoke on exterior operations.
- Perform decontamination of gear and SCBA at the fire ground while still on SCBA air. Keep on SCBA air until on-scene decontamination is complete.
- Do not wash PPE at home or public laundry mat.
- Damaged or contaminated gear may need to be destroyed or retired according to Chapter 10 of NFPA 1851.
- Wash yourself as soon as possible after every fire.
- Wash exposed face, hands, head, and neck at the fire ground with wet wipes or soap and water. Keep wet wipes available for easy cleanup.
- Shower your entire body as soon as possible after cleaning equipment upon return to the station.
- After showering, change into clean clothes.
- Store PPE gear correctly to avoid contaminating other areas in the firehouse or apparatus.
- At the firehouse, store gear in designated areas only. Keep gear locker room door closed. Do not wear or leave gear in the living and sleeping areas
- After a fire, exposed gear should be returned to the station for cleaning via the fire apparatus. Store exposed gear in an outside compartment while returning to the station. If gear must be stored inside the apparatus, place it in a tied garbage bag or an airtight container. If stored in a container that will be reused, the container must also be cleaned.
- Use a PPE gear bag or an airtight container when transporting clean gear in personal vehicles.
- Always be cautious at the fire ground.
- Do not rely on gas detectors to determine when to wear PPE. Even when the fire is out, contaminated particles still saturate the environment.
- Wear full PPE and SCBA during overhaul.
- Wear full PPE and SCBA at car and trash fires too.
- Provide as much natural ventilation as feasible to burned structures before starting investigations. Fire investigators should wear appropriate breathing protection.
Talk to your doctor. As a firefighter, make sure your doctor knows your work or volunteer history, even if you are retired. Even if you provide this information on forms, it is also a good idea to bring it up to your doctor yourself. If you change providers, make sure your new doctor knows your work and volunteer history.
Discuss your risk of cancer with your doctor. Firefighters may need to start screening at an earlier age and do screenings more frequently than the general population. Ask about ways to reduce your risk of cancer, such as good nutrition, physical activity, and avoiding tobacco and alcohol.
- The Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative provides cancer screening recommendations for firefighters (click on “Fire Service Joint Labor-Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative 4th edition” at the top of the page to view the PDF).
- NFPA 1582: Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments also provides health information for firefighters. Ask your fire chief about medical programs and services available to you.
Record your exposure. The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) recommends that firefighters keep a personal record that tracks exposures and incident responses. Examples are available through the various fire service organizations.
Follow healthy lifestyle behaviors. Good nutrition, physical activity, and avoiding tobacco and alcohol can decrease your risk of cancer and other diseases. For more information about healthy lifestyle recommendations, download or order the free fact sheet Healthy Behaviors.
Help Spread Awareness
Order free copies of our Firefighters and Cancer Risk postcard to share with others and/or distribute at your local firehouse.
Resources for Firefighters
- International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF)
- IAFF offers a free online Cancer Awareness and Prevention Training to members.
- International Association of Fire Chiefs
- National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
- Firefighter Cancer Support Network
- Fire Safety Through Advanced Research
- National Volunteer Fire Council
Virginia M Weaver MD MPH
Associate Professor of Environmental Health and Engineering and Medicine
Associate Faculty Member, Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research
Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health
Lt Jim Reidy
San Antonio Fire Department
San Antonio, TX
Lawrence G. Petrick Jr.
Dept. of Occupational Health & Safety
International Association of Fire Fighters
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fire Fighter Resources. Last reviewed August 8, 2018. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/firefighters/health.html. Accessed November 5, 2018.
Fire Engineering. Culture, Cancer, and Firefighting PPE in 2018. Webinar. October 9, 2018. https://www.fireengineering.com/webcasts/2018/10/culture-cancer-and-firefighting-ppe-in-2018.html. Accessed October 10, 2018.
International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). Cancer Awareness. Online course. https://my.iaff.org/Web/Events/Event_Display.aspx?EventKey=LMS_070&ibcToken=4b6cbe5a-f5e1-e811-810b-000c2979417c. Accessed November 6, 2018.
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National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Findings from a Study of Cancer among U.S. Fire Fighters. July 2016. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/pgms/worknotify/pdfs/ff-cancer-factsheet-final.pdf. Accessed November 5, 2018.
NIOSH . Health hazard evaluation report: evaluation of dermal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in fire fighters. By Fent KW, Eisenberg J, Evans D, Sammons D, Robertson S, Striley C, Snawder J, Mueller C, Kochenderfer V, Pleil J, Stiegel M, Horn G. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH HETA Report No. 2010-0156-3196. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2010-0156-3196.pdf. Accessed November 7, 2018.
Pukkala E, Martinsen JI, Weiderpass E, Kjaerheim K, Lynge E, Tryggvadottir L, Sparén P, Demers PA. Cancer incidence among firefighters: 45 years of follow-up in five Nordic countries. Occup Environ Med. 2014 Jun;71(6):398-404. doi: 10.1136/oemed-2013-101803. Epub 2014 Feb 6. PubMed PMID: 24510539. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24510539. Accessed November 7, 2018.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). Last reviewed May 2017. https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/polycyclic-aromatic-hydrocarbons-pahs. Accessed October 25, 2018.