Federal agencies Workplace exposures Fire/emergency medical services

Firefighting officially a cancer-causing profession, World Health Organization says

firefighter in action
Photo: Jacek_Sopotnicki/iStockphoto

Lyon, France — The World Health Organization has reclassified firefighting as a carcinogenic profession.

The organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer recently convened a panel of 25 scientists from eight countries. They examined 52 cohort and case-control studies, 12 case reports, and seven meta-analyses before elevating the firefighting profession to an IARC Group 1 designation – meaning it’s carcinogenic to humans. IARC’s previous classifications deemed it a possibility that firefighters could develop cancer.

The panel concluded that firefighters around the world are exposed to a range of cancer-causing toxins on the job, and “sufficient evidence” exists that they’re at increased risk for bladder cancer and mesothelioma, which impacts tissue lining the lungs and other organs. Additionally, “limited evidence” links firefighters to elevated risk of colon, prostate and testicular cancers, along with skin cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Occupational exposures for firefighters can stem from a variety of hazards, including fires (wildland and structure) and non-fire events (vehicle crashes, hazardous material releases and medical incidents), as well as combustion products (particulates from fires), building materials (asbestos), chemicals in firefighting foams (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS – also known as “forever chemicals” because they break down slowly over time), radiation and diesel exhaust.


Additionally, limitations in fit, design, maintenance and decontamination of personal protective equipment can contribute to exposures.

In a report published by the University of Miami, panelist Alberto Caban-Martinez, deputy director of the UM Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Firefighter Cancer Initiative, said designating the profession as carcinogenic may lead to more funding and regulations aimed at protecting firefighters, as well as assist those diagnosed with cancer.

Added Erin Kobetz, director of the UM initiative: “Evidence undisputedly indicates that firefighting is associated with increased cancer risk, and this finding ensures the first responders will not have to lobby for disability and other benefits associated with a cancer diagnosis.”

The panel’s findings were published in the journal The Lancet Oncology.

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