New research suggests that firefighters may face an increased risk of developing skin cancer than the general population, and they also may be more likely to develop life-threatening forms at a much younger age.
In a study published this week in the medical journal JAMA Dermatology, researchers from the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami outlined findings from a survey given to nearly 2,400 firefighters in Florida, which highlights a potentially under-recognized risk associated with the job.
Researchers analyzed data from the Annual Cancer Survey, which is a 127-item cancer questionnaire that asked for details about cancer risk factors and behavior. The average age of the participant was 42 years with 15 years on the job.
The findings indicated Florida firefighters have an increased risk for developing skin cancer compared to the general population. The frequency of developing skin cancer among firefighters in Florida was 0.7% compared to 0.01% among the general population in Florida.
Overall, 109 firefighters were diagnosed with skin cancer. Of those, 17 had melanoma, which is the most deadly type of skin cancer and the type that is most likely to grow and spread to other areas of the body. Another 84 had non-melanoma, which is the most common type of skin cancer and the most easily treated. Eighteen firefighters had unknown types of skin cancer.
The study also indicated the Florida firefighters were diagnosed at much younger ages than the general population. The average age the firefighters were diagnosed with melanoma was 42, compared to age 62 among the general population.
Firefighters wear protective gear to fight fires, but many have gaps in coverage in certain areas, including the waist, wrists, and neck. This may allow soot to enter and cause changes to their skin cells, researchers speculated.
Researchers based this idea on evidence involving chimney sweeps during the industrial revolution. At that time, chimney sweeps who cleaned soot in smokestacks developed scrotal cancer more frequently than the general population. This was due to the soot aggregating in the crotch region. Soot is a well-researched carcinogen known to be harmful to the human body in many ways.
Similarly, Florida is a sunny state. Ultraviolet (UV) light may affect the gap areas or be synergistic with the carcinogenic aspect of soot.
Researchers said they now want to conduct further research as to how and why the firefighters from Florida are developing skin cancer at higher rates than the general population. They hope to determine specifically what about their work environment may increase their risk.
They also want to understand if this is unique to Florida firefighters or if the findings apply to firefighters across the country, especially in regions more prone to and heavily affected by wildfires.