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UA study to look at cancer risks in wildland firefighters

Published: Nov. 19, 2021 at 5:42 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - It’s well known that firefighters face not only dangerous flames on the job, but an increase in cancer risks. Now, a new study by the University of Arizona Health Sciences Department is looking at these risks when it comes to wildland firefighters.

They answer the call in some of the most remote places in the US. Wildland firefighters save homes, lives and entire forests on the job, but the impacts of that job are unknown.

“Firefighters that work in municipalities, like for example Tucson Fire Department, Phoenix Fire Department, so on, those firefighters are at an increased risk for cancer compared to the general population” said Dr. Jeff Burgess, the associate dean for research at UArizona Health Science. “However, we really don’t know what the cancer risk is for wildland firefighters.”

While city firefighters have breathing apparatuses and oxygen, wildland firefighters often go without much of that. Soot is on the skin longer, and many of the same carcinogens are likely in the air they breathe too. Jeff Hughes was a captain on a type three brush unit for decades.

“For a two week assignment or longer, you know, sleep is limited, your ability to get a shower and get clean clothes, limited, respiratory protection, maybe it’s a bandana,” said Jeff Hughes, retired wildland firefighter.

A new study by the University of Arizona Health Sciences Department will look at different cancer-causing markers in wildland firefighters in California and Colorado. With the help of a $1.5 million FEMA grant, researchers hope to address the large unknown of cancer risks, and then help make the job safer for wildland firefighters, especially as climate change continues to impact the American West.

“We are seeing more fires, we’re seeing a much longer fire season than there used to be,” said Burgess.

Not only could this research help those fighting blazes in our forests, it could help understand effects the general population may have when exposed to similar carcinogens, though the effects would likely be much lower than firefighters’.

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