Firefighters Risk From Cancer and Other Diseases Highlighted in New Study

Researchers point to an increasing amount of chemical exposures during firefighting as a likely cause of cancer and heart disease risks

The findings of a new study raises further concerns about firefighters’ cancer risks, indicating they are substantially more likely than the general public to die from cancer, as well as heart attacks, strokes, and other diseases; adding to a growing body of evidence about the long-term side effects from frequent exposure to toxic substances that are increasingly encountered responding to emergencies.

Occupational health risks for firefighters extend far beyond the known dangers associated with fighting fires. Prior research has found a link between cancer and firefighting in the U.S. and Canada, and a new study published this month looking specifically at those working in Scotland has produced similar results, indicating that a firefighter’s risk of dying from cancer may be three times more than other individuals in the general population.

In a report published in the medical journal Occupational Medicine, U.K researchers looked at data on 672 firefighters in Scotland between the ages of 30 and 74, from 2000 to 2020, examining medical records and deaths due to cancer or disease. They compared those results to data on the General Scottish population.

According to the findings, firefighters were overall 60% more likely to die of cancer than the general population. They were nearly three times as likely to die from malignant neoplasms, nearly four times more likely to die from prostate cancer, three times as likely to die from myeloid leukemia, and twice as likely to die from oesophagus, kidney and bladder cancer.

The researchers also found firefighters were more than five times as likely to die from ischemic heart disease, and also faced increased risk of stroke, interstitial pulmonary diseases, kidney failure and musculoskeletal system diseases.

Firefighters’ Cancer Risks Impacted By Increasing Use of Synthetic Materials and Chemicals

While a number of different factors may influence the cancer risk for firefighters, researchers in this new study speculated that the increasing use of synthetic materials and chemicals are likely a major cause, resulting in more toxic exposures responding to fires.

“The excess cancer mortality observed in Scottish firefighters for several site-specific cancers suggest a significant contribution from several exposure pathways and/or fire toxins,” the researchers concluded.

They noted that certain cancers linked to firefighters have also been linked to chemicals in toxic fire effluent, which flows off and through a firefighting site when items containing toxic chemicals are then doused with fire retardant chemicals and water. These chemicals commonly include benzene, styrene, asbestos, formaldehyde, and air pollutants like carbon monoxide and ethylene oxide.

“We already knew that fire contaminants were very likely causing cancer and other diseases in firefighters. Now, we have evidence that cements that belief and also shows that contaminants can impact their mental health,” Ricardo la Torre, national officer of the Fire Brigades Union in the U.K, said in a press release by the University of Central Lancashire, which conducted the study. “No firefighter should suffer unnecessarily and there is much more that fire services can be doing to reduce exposure to fire contaminants.”

Firefighter PFAS Exposure May Cause Cancer

Another common cause of cancers among firefighters is widely believed to be from exposure to toxic PFAS chemicals, which have been used in firefighting foam and other safety equipment for decades.

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Firefighting Foam Lawsuits

Exposure to firefighting foam chemicals may result in an increased risk of cancer for firefighters, military and airport personnel.

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Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) used to fight petroleum-based fires are now commonly called “forever chemicals”, since they are known to build up in the human body, causing a number of different types of cancer and diseases.

Manufacturers of PFAS chemicals and safety equipment now face thousands of firefighter cancer lawsuits, involving allegations that years of exposure to the chemicals caused testicular cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, bladder cancer and other injuries. Although the manufacturers knew or should have known about the PFAS cancer risk, firefighters allege that they withheld important safety information and warnings for decades.

Claims brought throughout the federal court system against 3M Company, DuPont, Tyco Fire Products, Buckeye Fire Equipment Company, Kidde-Fenwal and other manufacturers of firefighting foam and protective equipment are now centralized in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, as part of a federal MDL or multidistrict litigation, since they each raise common questions of fact and law.

In addition to firefighter lawsuits over the PFAS cancer risk, the litigation also includes a number of complaints brought by local water suppliers over the costs associated with removing PFAS chemicals from their water systems. The companies also face potential PFAS water contamination lawsuits that are now starting to be pursued by individuals who lived in areas that are known to have high levels of the chemicals in their water, usually around military bases, airports and other firefighter training locations, where the chemicals seeped into the water supply.

As part of the coordinated management of the growing litigation, the U.S. District Judge presiding over the cases has established a “bellwether” program, where a small group of water supplier lawsuits are being prepared for early trial dates before lawsuits over the firefighters cancer risk from AFFF are scheduled, to help gauge how juries are likely to respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be repeated throughout the claims.

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