Summary of Findings from a July 2016 Study of
Cancer among U.S. Firefighters
In 2010, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) began a multi-year study of nearly 30,000 firefighters from the Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco Fire Departments to better understand the potential link between firefighting and cancer. The study was a joint effort led by researchers at NIOSH in collaboration with researchers at the National Cancer Institute and the University of California at Davis Department of Public Health Sciences and supported in part by the U.S Fire Administration. This study was completed in late 2015.
The firefighters we studied showed higher rates of certain types of cancer than the general U.S. population.
Based on U.S. cancer rates:
Firefighters in our study had a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths. These were mostly digestive, oral, respiratory, and urinary cancers.
There were about twice as many firefighters with malignant mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Exposure to asbestos while firefighting is the most likely explanation.
There were more cases of certain cancers among younger firefighters. For example, firefighters in our study who were under 65 years of age had more bladder and prostate cancers than expected.
When comparing firefighters in our study to each other:
- The chance of lung cancer diagnosis or death increased with amount of time
spent at fires.
- The chance of leukemia death increased with the number of fire runs.
What this means
For fire service
This study provides further evidence that firefighters are at increased risk of certain types of cancer as a result of occupational exposure. Raised awareness and exposure prevention efforts are cost- effective means to reduce occupational cancer risk. Thus, the fire service should increase efforts to educate members about safe work practices. This includes proper training, proper use of protective clothing, and proper use of approved respiratory protection during all phases of firefighting.
If you are a firefighter and you are healthy right now this study does not mean that you will get cancer. We don’t know, simply from this study, whether or not you will get cancer. Instead, our study found that firefighters, on average, have a higher risk of certain types of cancer compared to the general population.
If you are a firefighter and have cancer this study does not mean that your service caused your cancer. This study cannot determine if an individual’s specific cancer is service-related. In addition to exposures that you may have encountered as a firefighter there are other factors that may influence whether or not you developed a particular cancer, and this study was not able to address many of these factors.
If you are an active or retired firefighter and are worried about your health, share this information with your doctor. It is important that your doctor is kept aware of possible job-related health concerns.
For More Information
NIOSH Firefighter Cancer Study Website
Press Release: NIOSH Study of Firefighters Finds Increased Rates of Cancer
NIOSH Science Blog: Is There a Link Between Firefighting and Cancer? – Epidemiology in Action
Publication (available per BMJ guidelines)
Mortality and cancer incidence in a pooled cohort of US firefighters from San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia (1950− 2009)
If you have questions about this study, or to request printed copies of electronic materials available on the NIOSH website, please send an email to GHartle@cdc.gov, or call the NIOSH Industrywide Studies Branch at (513) 458-7118.