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December 2006 Issue

Grace LeMasters, PhD, and James Lockey, MD, are studying the health effects of environmental particulates infirefighters.
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Firefighters Face Increased Risk for Certain Cancers

By Amanda Harper
Published December 2006

New UC research has revealed that firefighters are significantly more likely to develop four different types of cancer than workers in other fields.

The researchers suggest that the protective equipment firefighters have used in the past didn’t do a good job in protecting them against cancer-causing agents they encounter in their profession.

“We believe there’s a direct correlation between the chemical exposures firefighters experience on the job and their increased risk for cancer,” says Grace LeMasters, PhD, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UC and lead author for the study.

The researchers found, for example, that firefighters are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer and have significantly higher rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and pro-state cancer than non-firefighters. The researchers also confirmed previous findings that firefighters are at greater risk for multiple myeloma.

Together with Ash Genaidy, PhD, and James Lockey, MD, LeMasters reports these findings in the November 2006 edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

The research is the largest comprehensive study to date investigating cancer risk associated with working as a firefighter.

Firefighters are exposed to many compounds designated as carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—including diesel engine exhaust, benzene, chloroform, soot, styrene and formaldehyde, LeMasters explains.
These substances can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and occur both at the scene of a fire and in the firehouse, where idling diesel fire trucks produce exhaust.

The research team analyzed information on 110,000 firefighters, most of them full-time, white male workers, from 32 previously published scientific studies to determine the comprehensive health effects and correlating cancer risks of their profession.

Risk for 20 different cancers was classified into three categories—probable, possible or not likely—patterned after the IARC’s risk-assessment model. UC epidemiologists found that half the studied cancers—including testicular, prostate, skin, brain, rectum, stomach and colon cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma and malignant melanoma—were associated with firefighting to varying levels of increased risk.

“There’s a critical and immediate need for additional protective equipment to help firefighters avoid inhalation and skin exposures to known and suspected occupational carcinogens,” says Lockey, professor of environmental health and pulmonary medicine at UC. “In addition, firefighters should meticulously wash their entire body to remove soot and other residues from fires to avoid skin exposure.”

Study collaborators include UC’s James Deddens, PhD, Kari Dunning, PhD, and Paul Succop, PhD, as well as Tarek Sobeih, MD, PhD, of Cairo University, and Heriberto Barriera-Viruet, PhD, of Interamerican University of Puerto Rico.

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