According to the National Fire Protection Association, more than 68 percent of all firefighters will develop some form of cancer in their lifetimes. The rate of line-of-duty deaths from cancer-related illness is rapidly increasing and is on pace to overtake cardiac disease as the leading killer of firefighters nationwide.
The most frequently diagnosed cancers in firefighters are found in the digestive, respiratory and urinary systems, as well as orally, including the salivary glands and throat. Specific cancers related to carcinogen exposure – such as malignant mesothelioma – are more than twice as prevalent in firefighters than in the general population. The chance of lung cancer and leukemia diagnoses, and cancer-related death increases with the amount of time spent at fires.
Despite many statewide bans on fire retardant chemicals, the presence of existing synthetic materials increases the amount of smoke and toxic gas released during occupied structure fires. Dirty or ill-fitting turnout gear can increase the risk of exposure to carcinogens, and prolonged exposure to the skin and lungs is especially dangerous. In order to limit occupational cancer risk, the fire service must improve efforts around proper training, use, cleaning and maintenance of protective gear during all phases of firefighting.