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July 28, 2005 

Firefighters Face Increased Cancer Risk

Cancer Risk Cannot be Directly Linked to 1970s Training Methods

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health completed a 10-month investigation to determine if cancers diagnosed among a group of Anne Arundel County, Md., firefighters could have been caused by smoke inhaled during training. The investigation, conducted at the request of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, concluded that firefighters generally are at a somewhat greater risk for developing cancer compared to the general public, but that the diagnosed cancers in those using the Anne Arundel County facility could not be directly linked to the training methods with the evidence available.

From 1971 to 1979, the Anne Arundel County Fire Department burned waste oil containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) during its training exercises. The burning of the waste oil exposed the fire fighters to PCBs and other potentially carcinogenic compounds created by their combustion, such as polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins.

The investigation was based on interviews with firefighters and an extensive review of published research on cancer occurrence among fire fighters. Seventeen Anne Arundel County firefighters told investigators they had been diagnosed with at least one cancer, nearly half of them with skin cancer. Two firefighters were diagnosed with brain cancer and three with leukemia or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Other cancers found were of the bladder, colon, lung and prostate.

The available research data indicated that, compared to the general public, firefighters were at a slightly greater risk for all cancers, and those specifically of the bladder, brain, colon, lymphatic system, kidney, pancreas, prostate, skin, rectum and testicles. Firefighters with greater exposure to fires during their careers appeared to be at a higher risk for cancers. However, the Hopkins researchers said it was not possible to recreate the doses of PCBs and byproducts received by the firefighters who trained at the Academy in the 1970s and therefore difficult to estimate the specific risk to this group.

“These gaps in the evidence do not mean there is no risk to firefighters. Further research on the risk of cancer and other diseases among firefighters is needed,” said Jonathan Samet, MD, the lead investigator and chairman of the Department of Epidemiology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. In their report, the researchers outline several strategies for determining the risks of cancer and other diseases among firefighters.

The full report was presented to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and to the leadership of Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters, Professional Firefighters of Maryland, Retired Firefighters Association, Inc., and the Anne Arundel Volunteer Firefighters Association.  It is also available online here. The research team plans to present the findings of their investigation to the public at an open meeting scheduled for August 10, 2005. The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. at Lindale Middle School, located at 415 Andover Road in Linthicum, Md.

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna Lowe at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.