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Cancer Now the Leading Cause of Death Among Firefighters

Cancer Now the Leading Cause of Death Among Firefighters

In the aftermath of the 911 terrorist attacks there has been an increase in the degree of attention devoted to the long-term health of first-responder personnel such as firefighters. Although most firefighter deaths that come to the attention of the general public are due to “newsworthy” events such as structural collapse or accidents while responding to fire and fire-related emergencies, heart disease has been the leading cause of “line of duty” firefighter deaths in the United States. This statistic changed in 2019 when the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) reported that the number of cancer deaths in line of duty firefighters exceeded the number of deaths caused by heart disease.

In today’s post, the workplace injury lawyer at The Doan Law Firm will review the latest available data on active and retired firefighter deaths. He will then offer suggestions that may be of interest to firefighters who have developed cancer.


Note: In the following sections “line of duty” refers to any condition that develops while an individual is employed as a full-time, part-time, or volunteer firefighter or as a result of exposure to some substance while working as a firefighter. “On duty” refers to the specific time that a firefighter is “on the job” as a firefighter or within the 24 hours immediately following an “on duty” period.

In 2016, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released a study based on the health of 30,000 active and retired firefighters in the cities of Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. That study found that, in comparison to the general population:

  • Firefighters had a 9% greater incidence of diagnosis of all types of cancer, with cancers involving the  digestive, oral, respiratory, and urinary systems accounting for the majority of firefighter cancer cases. Further, firefighters were 14% more likely to die from their cancer than the civilian population.
  • Firefighters were twice as likely to develop mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer that is closely linked to asbestos exposure.
  • Firefighters under the age of 65 had a higher rate of bladder and prostate cancers than would have been expected.
  • The incidence of lung cancer diagnosis or lung cancer death increased with the amount of time spent actively fighting fires.
  • For reasons that are not clearly understood, the incidence of leukemia and leukemia-related deaths increased with the number of fire runs in personnel that did not actively participate in firefighting (e.g. drivers or supervisors).

Specific risks of developing the most commonly diagnosed cancers among firefighters include:

  • Testicular cancer: 2.02 times more likely than in non-firefighters
  • Mesothelioma: 2.00 times more likely than in non-firefighters
  • Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma: 1.51 times more likely than in non-firefighters
  • Brain Cancer: 1.31 times more likely than in non-fighters
  • Colon Cancer: 1.21 times more likely than in non-firefighters

The most commonly-cited reason for the upsurge in cancer deaths among active and retired firefighters is that modern (built within the previous 30 years) homes and commercial buildings make extensive use of synthetic and semi-synthetic materials such as polyurethane and engineered wood. When these materials burn, they leave behind soot that is known to contain carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances. The particles of such soot are extremely small and can enter the respiratory system if a firefighter’s respirator mask is not properly fitted or through the skin if the soot is not promptly washed away. Another factor known to contribute to a higher risk of cancer in firefighters is the location and type of fires that are most commonly encountered over a firefighter’s career. As an example, firefighters who responded to a large number of oil refinery or chemical plant fires had higher cancer rates than those who spent the majority of their time responding to non-industrial fires.

Contacting a workplace injury lawyer

In cases where a firefighter is injured on-the-job, he or she is usually covered by either state Workers Compensation or by a city/county municipal employees health and disability insurance program. However, if an active or retired firefighter develops cancer, proving that the cancer was directly related to on-the-job exposure to substances containing carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances can be difficult.

If you are a fighter who has developed cancer we invite you to contact the workplace injury lawyer at The Doan Law Firm, a national personal injury law practice with offices located throughout the country to arrange a free review of your on-the-job injury  case and a discussion of the legal options that may be available to you.

When you contact our workplace injury lawyer, you cane review and initial consultation with our workplace injury staff is always free and does not obligate you to hire our firm as your legal counsel. Should you decide that a lawsuit is in order and that you would like for us to represent you in court, we are willing to assume full responsibility for all aspects of preparing your case for trial in exchange for a previously negotiated percentage of the settlement that we will win for you.

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