The Issue of Cancer in Firefighters and How to Manage It

Subject: Oncology
Pages: 6
Words: 1731
Reading time:
6 min


Cancer is one of the most common and currently incurable diseases worldwide. Nevertheless, some professions predispose to acquiring such a disease, including the fire department. It is necessary to understand the main causes and factors of cancer in firefighters and to identify measures to influence this situation. In addition, it is necessary to highlight the degree of danger of the problem to understand the need for global changes in this sphere.

Taking Action Against Cancer in Fire Service Research

Taking Action Against Cancer in the Fire Service investigated cancer rates among firefighters. As it turned out, the disease is directly related to this profession, even though this phenomenon is not widely known. Based on the findings, alternatives and ways to combat this phenomenon have been proposed (Fire Chiefs, 2013). The main advice is to monitor professionals and keep statistics to show how effective the measures are.

Scope of the Cancer Problem

The risk of cancer for firefighters is lower than the statistical average, which is associated with the healthy worker effect; however, according to foreign studies, already after five years of work, the probability of developing cancer increases to 20%, and after another ten years – to 30% (Haseney, 2020, p.27). It is noteworthy that despite physical indicators, on average, firefighters are 30% more likely to get cancer during their work (Haseney, 2020, p.29). International studies show a direct link between firefighting and an increased risk of cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) conducted research that found a large number of hazardous carcinogens in smoke from combustion (Zimmerman, 2019). The following analysis has shown a correlation between the congeners mentioned above and the development of cancer cells, which is the harmful effect of smoke on the lymphatic system of humans.

It is because of their work that many firefighters face various cancers. This is confirmed by foreign scientists – in 2014, for example, the results of a 45-year study conducted by Scandinavian specialists in Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark were published. Of the 16,420 firefighters who participated in the monitoring, cancer was found in 2,653 fighters (Zimmerman, 2019, p.54). And German researchers note that after five years of work, the risk of cancer among firefighters increases to 20% compared to other professions (Haseney, 2020, p.33). After ten years, this figure reaches 30%, so the fact is that in addition to fire, on-call firefighters face a much more terrible and not-so-obvious enemy – carcinogens (Haseney, 2020, p.34). In a study conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, smoke as a product of incomplete combustion was named a potentially carcinogenic substance.

Major Contributors of Cancer

Modern fires have become more toxic and carcinogenic to humans than they were 15-20 years ago. Research is still going on today because the world has changed dramatically – modern fires have become more toxic and carcinogenic (Haseney, 2020). Buildings are now filled with plastic and furniture made of new synthetic materials that replace natural materials. When they catch fire, they produce a lot of toxic smoke, which releases different chemicals. The higher the temperature around the firefighter, the faster this happens. Studies published in the U.S. have shown that after going out to extinguish a fire, levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the urine of firefighters increase by a factor of 2.9-5 (Haseney, 2020, p.41). Flooring, interiors, appliances, and many other items and products for everyday life contain different types of plastics and flame retardants that release a cocktail of different chemicals into the air when exposed to high temperatures and water.

Firefighters are exposed to these toxic, carcinogenic substances through unprotected breathing passages and also through open skin pores. In spite of this, cancer among firefighters in Germany is not recognized as an occupational disease, and rescue workers and their families are left alone with the consequences (Zimmerman, 2019). In Sweden, the Skelleftea model has been developed over the years (Zimmerman, 2019). With this proven method, a consistent, clean/dirty separation and rough cleaning on the battlefield should prevent or minimize contamination of fire trucks and fire stations. More education and training of firefighters, improved hygiene, timely replacement of clothing, and development of protective equipment are needed. These costs are justified if it reduces the risk of contracting cancer in some way.

The contact with hazardous particles also takes place after the extinguishing of fire – during the spillage and disassembly, when respiratory protection means are no longer used, as well as after returning to the unit – by simple household contact with combat gear and other outfits, equipment, and gear. The modern firefighting community of our country is only now coming to the conclusion that washing combat fatigues are not just a matter of hygiene; it is the fight against deadly diseases (Zimmerman, 2019). According to experts, the reason for this imbalance lies in the fact that we have different approaches to the study of cancer as an occupational disease of firefighters (Zimmerman, 2019). Over the past decades, there has been a steady trend abroad to protect the health and lives of personnel.

The seriousness of the situation is often not understood by the firefighters themselves – many hardly ever take the time to clean their firefighting clothing. There are several reasons for this. First, most manufacturers of protective equipment do not tell you that protective clothing must be washed regularly (Zimmerman, 2019). Secondly, the firefighters themselves do not carefully study the user manuals, much less deciphering the meanings of the graphic symbols indicating the processes of washing, drying, and ironing.

The problem of cancer is not part of the modern standard of professional training for firefighters. And often, firefighters are simply unaware of the consequences of dirty uniforms. Many manufacturers indicate on their labeling that after washing, they do not guarantee the preservation of protective properties. At most, they advise wiping the outfit with a damp cloth, which, for obvious reasons, does not solve the problem. Other combat boots are allowed to wash only the top layer, but all the rest is prohibited. This is due to the materials, which after washing, will either lose their protective properties or will accumulate a lot of water, and drying the suit will be extremely difficult. And since wool is often used as a material for the insulation layer, the outfit, if not dried completely, can start to rot and decay, forming a large number of microorganisms (Zimmerman, 2019). The problem is also that fire stations simply do not have special washing machines, and ordinary household machines are not everywhere. And if somewhere and clean the equipment, do it with violations – in one machine can be washed as protective clothing, which has just arrived from the fire, and the work form, personal items, including bedding and towels.

Ways of how My Organization Helps Exposure Records

It is important to note that our organization also monitors statistics in order to observe any changes in morbidity over time. This is done through two methods, the first of which is reporting, and the second is regular follow-up with the doctor. The combination of these activities contributes to the development of the disease records that were written about in Taking Action Against Cancer in the Fire Service as the most important ways to monitor the situation.

There are two ways to improve my organization’s Exposure Record collection. Firstly, it is necessary to include regular check-ups with doctors in the schedule so that they occur immediately after exposure to harmful substances. This will allow the data to be most up-to-date and fully. Secondly, I suggest improving the feedback system, which is all about constant communication and interaction with firefighters. Their comments and complaints would also help in developing the Exposure Records collection. It will happen because the records would be written in a timely manner, which would allow control over the work of the entire system.

Ways to Improve the Situation

Any improvement of management in firefighting organizations must be supported by management theories. This requires considering the availability of resources, having a charismatic leader who can effectively instill new ideas, and distributing authority to all members (Zimmerman, 2019). An important prerequisite will be the allocation of responsibility, which will be discussed below using the example of laundering work clothes. Thus, based on all of the above, several options may be offered to reduce the likelihood of cancer in firefighters, which, in particular, are used in my organization:

  1. It is necessary to ensure the changeability and permanent cleanliness of the uniform. Thanks to it, overalls will not accumulate and multiply harmful bacteria and fumes. In addition to hygiene, this can have a positive impact on the overall health of the firefighter. In turn, I can contribute to this by carefully handling my uniform, as well as contributing to the purchase of new ones.
  2. Introduce and expand courses for professionals about cancer and other serious diseases. Introduction and awareness are extremely effective tools as firefighters become aware of hazards other than occupational hazards to fear. I, as an informed individual, can train a group of firefighters and tell them all the necessary details and how to deal with them.
  3. Provide the necessary resources for changing and controlling the cleanliness of protective clothing. As mentioned above, not all organizations are equipped with streamers or extra kits so that every professional can be safe. In turn, I can, for example, monitor the working order of washing machines or monitor the regular use of these resources by firefighters.
  4. Make a correct schedule of shifts because the presence of smoke in the body has a cumulative effect. The fact is that working often or several days in a row, being in contact with smoke, the specialist accumulates substances leading to cancer or other diseases. As a conscientious worker, I will structure my schedule to minimize the odds and advocate this among my co-workers.
  5. Provide quality and modern respirators and protective clothing that provide maximum protection against harmful fumes. Such equipment must be easily washable and have a high barrier to harmful substances. This will not only help reduce the chance of getting sick but also ensure safer work in general. In this case, I am ready to help find suitable and favorable offers, as well as to contribute some money to make it easier to carry out modernization.


Fire Chiefs. (2013). Taking Action Against Cancer in the Fire Service. Web.

Haseney, J. J. (2020). Overcoming Implementation Barriers Within the fire Service to Reduce Firefighter Cancer Rates. Naval Postgraduate School.

Zimmerman, D. (2019). Fire Fighter Safety and Survival. Jones & Bartlett Learning.