Do Firefighters Get Cancer? Hazards Beyond The Flame

Cancer Prevention Tips for firefightersDo Firefighters Get Cancer?

I’m sitting here watching some fireman attempting to put out a shed that’s on fire across the street.  I’m watching them dodge plumes of black smoke and I can’t help but wonder “Do firefighters get cancer?” A quick search on the old “G” man reveals some troublesome information.

Yes, fireman do get cancer, a lot!  The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety did two large studies.  They found that firefighters face a 9% increase in cancer diagnosis.  As well, they experience a 14% increase in cancer related deaths compared to regular Americans.

The International Association of Firefighters says cancer is now the leading cause of death among firefighters.


Do fireman get cancer?

Firefighters & Cancer

Why Are Firemen More Likely To Get Cancer?

Firefighters are more likely to get cancer because smoke contains carcinogens (cancer-causing agents).  House fires in particular contain many synthetic and plastic materials that create highly toxic smoke.  Older homes and building also often contain asbestos, another know carcinogen.  During a fire, asbestos is released into the air.  This airborne asbestos is very dangerous if inhaled.  Strict safety measures need to be followed if contaminated.

Direct smoke inhalation and fire are obvious hazards that firefighters deal with. A less known and only more recently scrutinized problem is chemical contamination.  While putting out fires the fighters wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  The PPE then becomes contaminated with all the carcinogens in the smoke.  It is through contact with these carcinogens on the PPE that has lead to so many firefighter cancer related issues.  Until now fire safety has been the main focus for firefighters.  Meanwhile, a silent killer has been stalking the toughest among us.  “The longer you’re a firefighter, the greater your chance of getting some kind of cancer,” says Susan Shaw, the executive director of the Marine & Environmental Research Institute.


house fires, toxic smoke, carcinogens, cancer, firefighters and caner

Firefighters Amid Toxic Smoke

What Kinds Of Cancer Do Firefighters Get?

Thirty years ago, asbestos-related cancers were the diagnosis for most firefighters . Today the cancers are more often leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma. The younger generations  seem to suffer more from aggressive oral, digestive, respiratory and urinary cancers. Firefighters of all ages though are still being diagnosed with cancers of all kinds.

Here is a brief  list of cancers most often know to affect firefighters:

  • Multiple myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Prostate & testicular cancers
  • Brain Cancer
  • Colon Cancer
  • Skin Cancer
  • Lung Cancer
  • Leukemia

This is by far not a complete or official list.  It would be impossible to definitively say these diseases were caused solely by carcinogens in smoke.  However the data on firefighter related cancer  issues compared to normal Americans is alarmingly higher.

Firefighter Cancer Prevention – What Can You Do To Cut Down Your Risk Of Cancer?

Here is a short checklist, but basically, wash everything.

  • Decontaminate all gear immediately after a fire.   Use the Fire Hose to spray each other down after.  If that is not practical was gear upon returning to the station.
  • Remove and wash All PPE upon returning to the station.
  • change your clothes and wash them
  • After completion of gross decon procedures, and while still on scene, the exposed areas of the body (neck, face, arms and hands) should be wiped off immediately.. Use wipes to remove as much soot as possible from head, neck, jaw, throat, underarms and hands immediately.
  • Shower as soon as possible after a fire
  • Document exposure


The short answer, wash.  Wash all PPE after each use. Take a shower as well to wash away any contaminates that may have gotten onto your clothes and body. The simple power of soap and water has proven to be very effective against carcinogen cross contamination. Somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten the importance of washing up. We no longer consider an ash covered face to be a sign of a true hero. Now we are aware of the fact that it’s actually a death mask. A layer of toxic chemicals that needs to be washed away as quickly as possible.

For More Cancer Prevention Information Check Out  The Prevent Cancer Foundation

Education and understanding can go along way towards cancer prevention in Firefighters.  Understanding the importance of protecting yourself from carcinogen contaminated surfaces is important. It can be mean the difference between you being taken out by a disease, or going out in a blazing glory.  Bad pun?


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