Author(s): Kathleen Almand. Published on March 1, 2016.

Cancer Threat

Research combats the illness and disease hazards associated with firefighting


The results of a recent long-term health study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provide further evidence that firefighters are at higher risk than the general population for some types of cancers. In addition to NFPA, stakeholder groups in the fire community are active on this issue, including the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. The research group within NFPA, in particular the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF), is considering how our programs can contribute to these efforts, as well as to NFPA’s own initiatives.

The FPRF recently received a three-year Department of Homeland Security research grant of nearly $900,000 to study how cleaning affects the contamination of firefighter personal protective equipment (PPE). Firefighter PPE is exposed to a range of toxic chemicals, biological pathogens, and other hazardous substances—contaminant exposures that can pose significant dangers to firefighters’ immediate and long-term health, with increased risk to cancer topping the list. Whether new cleaning procedures adequately remove such contaminants from PPE has yet to be fully determined; an earlier FPRF study explored the effectiveness of these practices and illustrated the variety of practices that exist in fire departments, as well as the lack of technical substantiation for many of these decisions.

Part of the FPRF mission is to support the data needs of NFPA technical committees—in this case, the Technical Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, which is considering how firefighter cancer can be addressed in NFPA codes and standards, and the NFPA Committees on Fire and Emergency Services Protective Clothing and Equipment, which are addressing the related issue of protecting firefighters in hostile environments, including requirements for cleaning and replacing equipment upon contamination. In addition to the PPE cleaning study, the FPRF recently conducted a respiratory exposure study designed to provide firefighters and other emergency responders with data they can use for best-practice guidance on when to use, and discontinue use of, self-contained breathing apparatus and other respiratory protective equipment. The study focused on breathing environments that are possibly hazardous yet tenable, such as during overhaul operations, outdoor fires, and limited-exposure situations. The project included a literature review of research on respiratory exposure, a summary of field measurement technology, and a summary of selected fire department standard operating procedures and guidelines related to respiratory exposure.

Our annual report on firefighter deaths, produced by NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, includes a reference to statistics published by the IAFF on firefighter cancer deaths to provide a comparison of those growing numbers against the decline in on-duty deaths. NFPA also maintains a comprehensive database of enhanced incident records associated with firefighter deaths and injuries, and serves as an information resource for NIOSH and many other agencies on this topic.

We can do more to provide information and knowledge on the growing concern around these losses and possible risk reduction strategies. NFPA’s research effort continues to look for opportunities to use our resources and our partnerships with the fire community to address this important issue for the fire service.

KATHLEEN H. ALMAND, P.E., FSFPE, is vice president for Research at NFPA. Top Photograph: Shutterstock