Firefighters are regarded as heroes by many, but they are putting their lives on the line in more ways than one.
They are often exposed to cancer-causing chemicals on the job and $4 million from the Arizona Board of Regents will go toward research in search of a solution.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, cancer is a leading cause of death among firefighters. Research shows that firefighters are at a higher risk for certain types of cancers than the general public. With January’s Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month around the corner, Arizona Board of Regents is showing interest in helping.
“Cancer has silently overtaken the fire service as the number one issue,” Buckeye Fire Chief Jake Rhoades said. “Here in the state of Arizona, we’re pushing upwards of 100 firefighters who are battling some type of cancer… that’s really what this is all about is, is making sure our firefighters are safe and healthy. And not only have a great career, but a great retirement after that for the service they provide.”
ABOR announced a $4 million grant to help in a statewide effort to prevent and fight cancer in firefighters. One major concern is the presence of PFAS, per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances, in blood. PFAS are also known as forever chemicals and have been linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease.
“What we learned was that firefighters have a 9% higher cancer rate than the average population and a 14% higher cancer death rate than the general population.” Fred DuVal, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents said. “They’re literally putting their lives on the line.”
The grant will go to a University of Arizona led effort, working with Arizona State University and firefighter research team members, to enroll 1,500 Arizona firefighters in a study of blood PFAS levels and also offer the firefighters participation in cancer and cardiovascular disease prevention studies.
An important part of the study will determine if blood and plasma donations could lower the PFAS levels in blood, thus lowering the risk of cancer and other diseases.
Floris Wardenaar, a professor of sports nutrition at Arizona State University, said screenings are also being done at Arizona State University. Wardenaar is working in collaboration with Dr. Jeff Burgess at the University of Arizona to screen firefighters.
Many Arizona firefighters know people who have been diagnosed with cancer. This includes Glendale fire captain and public information officer Ashley Losch.
“A few years ago, my mentor, the person who got me hired on the fire department was diagnosed with cancer. And we knew the first time that it hit home, for me, and for the department in a way that we really hadn’t experienced before,” Losch said.
Firefighters who sign up for the study will join an existing firefighter cancer cohort study. Currently, more than 3,000 firefighters from over 50 departments in 26 states are enrolled.
Jeff Burgess, a professor at University of Arizona’s Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and director of the university’s new Center for Firefighter Health Collaborative Research, said the study will occur in two phases.
For the first phase, all firefighters who participate will get a blood test to measure the levels of PFAS in their blood. For the second part, firefighters with high PFAS levels will be offered participation in a study of blood or plasma donations. Those with lower PFAS levels will be offered participation in other cancer and cardiovascular disease prevention studies.
Jackie Goodrich, an environmental health sciences professor at University of Michigan, said PFAS have been in production for the past 50 years. Over the last 20 years, research about PFAS-related health outcomes have become public. PFAS are persistent and difficult to eliminate.
A similar study was done in Australia. It showed promising results and researchers are expecting similar results from the UofA study, which will also determine for the first time whether blood and plasma donations also reduce the toxic effects of PFAS exposure.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says that due to exposure to burning toxic chemicals in the form of gases, vapors and particles, firefighters are susceptible to cancers. Firefighters can breathe these chemicals in, get them on their skin, or in their eyes or ingest them. They can be exposed to benzene, formaldehyde or asbestos from older buildings.
“Unfortunately, building constructions change. And so, what our members are exposed to even a year ago could be different than it is today,” Mesa fire Captain Chris Hayes said.
Firefighters mainly come into contact with PFAS through contact with burning items, touching contaminated personal protective equipment or from certain firefighter foams, which are used to extinguish burning liquids. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends fire services educate firefighters about safe practices, such as proper cleaning and storage of protective equipment.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer named occupational exposures while firefighting as carcinogenic or cancer causing. It found major evidence that links firefighting to mesothelioma and bladder cancer. They also found limited evidence that links firefighting to colon, prostate and testicular cancers, as well as melanoma of the skin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Rhoades, the Buckeye chief, said there are precautions that firefighters can take to prevent exposure to carcinogens, but most fall on the department level. It is important that carcinogens do not enter the fire department living space. Firefighters in Buckeye are expected to bag up their protective gear and wash it more often. The newest fire station in Goodyear has “hot and cold” entrances and exits to keep contaminants contained in a single space.
Treatment for firefighters with cancer is becoming easier. This is thanks to the research being done at University of Arizona, as well as Senate Bill 1451, which Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law in 2021. This increases firefighters’ ability to receive compensation for cancer as a work-related condition.
Scottsdale Fire Chief and Arizona Fire Chiefs Association President Tom Shannon said his nephew, who was a Goodyear firefighter, died of cancer during the first iteration of SB 1451. However, Shannon said that he thinks the bill doesn’t provide enough coverage.
“We need to be as aggressive as they were in the firefight in protecting them,” Shannon said.