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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Cancer: The real threat to firefighters


    Firefighters have dangerous jobs: they enter burning buildings every day, exposing themselves to flames and smoke in order to save people’s lives. Yet, it is not the flames or lack of oxygen from the smoke that pose the largest threat to firefighter’s health.

    The leading cause of death among firefighters is actually cancer. Firefighters are exposed to carcinogens through both the skin and the inhalation of burning materials that can lead to cancer over time.

    Studies have shown that firefighters have a larger risk of acquiring a variety of cancers including skin, brain, prostate and testicular cancers.

    At the forefront of those trying to reduce cancer rates in firefighters is Jeff Burgess, associate dean for research at the Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. Working with the Tucson Fire Department and funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Burgess is looking into what specifically can cause cancer in firefighters and what can be done to reduce this.

    “Firefighters suffer increased rates of different cancers,” Burgess said. “We don’t fully understand the risk factors and exposure associated with many of those cancers and that information is important for making decisions to decrease cancer rates.”

    This isn’t Burgess’ first experience with this kind of research. Burgess has previously published his findings on what firefighters are exposed to during a fire, as well as the overhaul, during which firefighters search for concealed fires and are exposed to extra carcinogens because of their lack of respiratory protection.

    Currently, Burgess’ project is focused on changes on the cellular level over time.

    The UA research team plans to see what carcinogens the firefighters are exposed to, determine how potentially harmful these carcinogens could be and test methods to decrease the firefighters’ exposure to them. Chemicals, airborne particles and other materials will be tested for carcinogenic properties at both the sites of fires and at the fire station. In addition, samples of blood and urine will be collected from firefighters to be evaluated for chemical contaminants.

    “I think we will be able to have a good idea about current exposure and be able to look at how to lower that exposure,” Burgess said.

    As for the future, Burgess hopes to partner with other groups to see the long-term effects of exposure to carcinogens that these firefighters experience.

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