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Study Examines 33-Year Data to Investigate Cancer Risk in over 100,000 Career Florida Firefighters

Firefighters are at an increased risk for various cancers, including prostate, testicular, colorectal, melanoma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Studies of female firefighters are limited because there are relatively few in the workforce.

A new study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine examined cancer risk in over 100,000 career Florida firefighters, including approximately 5,000 females who were assessed from 1981 to 2014. Researchers from the NCI-designated Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, Department of Public Health Sciences, as well as the Florida Cancer Data System co-authored the study. 

To conduct the study, they linked 109,000 Florida firefighter employment records with 3.3 million registry data from the Florida Cancer Data System, which was recorded from 1981 to 2014. Researchers identified 3,760 male and 169 female firefighters who had been diagnosed with cancer. Taking into account the age and time period, they determined which types of cancer firefighters were more likely to be diagnosed with compared to non-firefighters.

Findings showed that compared to males that were not firefighters, male firefighters had a 56 percent greater risk of melanoma, 36 percent greater risk of prostate cancer, 66 percent greater risk of testicular cancer, 117 percent greater risk of thyroid, and a 19 percent greater risk of late-stage colon cancer.

Compared to females that were not firefighters, female firefighters showed a significant 154 percent increased risk of brain cancer and 142 percent increased risk of thyroid cancers. There was also a 68 percent greater risk of melanoma that approached statistical significance.

“These results are largely similar to many previous studies, but this is one of the first studies to look at cancer risk in female firefighters,” noted Laura McClure, who is a research support manager at the Miller School of Medicine and who also served as a co-author on the study.

While there was some evidence for increased cancer risk in female firefighters, additional research is needed to fully characterize their risk, according to study lead author David Lee, Ph.D., professor, director, and chair of graduate programs at the Miller School of Medicine.

“We were unable to reliably assess risk for many fewer common types of cancer among our female firefighters,” said Dr. Lee. “Larger studies which combine data across larger geographic regions are needed to characterize risk in this growing segment of the firefighter workforce.”

Findings also showed that there was also evidence of increased cancer risk in male firefighters younger than the age of 50 compared to those who were 50 years and older for thyroid, prostate, testicular, and melanoma cancers. These results suggest the need to screen firefighters at an earlier age as the hazardous materials to which they are exposed may result in cancer earlier in life.

The findings of this study, combined with those reported for firefighters outside of Florida, are being used to educate firefighters on their risk and to inform best-practices for reducing carcinogen exposures during and after firefighting activities. These efforts are supported through a state-funded Firefighter Cancer Initiative Project housed in the NCI-designated Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"The ultimate goal of the project is the reduction of cancer burden in the fire service," said Dr. Lee.

Written by Amanda Torres
Published on February 27, 2020