Cancer is a leading cause of death among firefighters. Exposure to carcinogens occurs through skin contamination and inhalation of smoke, diesel exhaust and other chemical gases, vapors and particulates.

To reduce cancer exposure rates among first responders and investigators, the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and UA College of Engineering have received $1.5 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Working closely with the Tucson Fire Department, the UA research team will evaluate exposure to carcinogens throughout the work shift, measure biomarkers of carcinogenic effect and test the effectiveness of interventions to reduce carcinogen exposure.

Lead researcher Jeff Burgess, MD, MPH, associate dean of research at the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health, says that barriers to reducing cancer in firefighters include insufficient knowledge of which materials pose the greatest cancer risk and how to best protect personnel.

“Reducing firefighter exposure to carcinogens should limit later development of cancer. If we can determine effective ways of achieving this goal, we should have a substantial positive impact on firefighter health,” said Dr. Burgess.

The researchers will measure exposure to particulates and volatile chemicals at the fireground and in the fire station. Blood and urine collected during annual medical evaluations and post-fireground activities will be analyzed for chemical contaminants. Biomarkers of carcinogenic effect also will be determined pre- and post-exposure, and evaluated for association with measured chemical contaminants. The results will determine the extent to which firefighter chemical exposures and biomarkers of effect can be reduced by following risk management steps.

Blood and urine collected during annual medical evaluations and post-fireground activities will be analyzed for chemical contaminants in the laboratory of Shane Snyder, PhD, professor of chemical and environmental engineering at the UA College of Engineering.

“Our team will apply state-of-the-art technologies to better determine those substances that firefighters encounter. These include high-resolution mass spectrometry to identify previously untargeted combustion products as well as evaluating responses of human cells exposed to the same chemicals in the laboratory. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time these techniques have been applied to evaluate firefighter exposures,” Snyder said.

This research builds on a strong partnership between the University of Arizona and the Tucson Fire Department, including a recently completed risk management study. Reducing cancer risks is a high priority for the fire service.

“The goal of the fire service is that ‘everyone goes home.’ We want to ensure that not only do we go home, but we go home with the quality of life that we’ve earned. This collaboration with the University of Arizona will use modern technologies to aid us in finding solutions that will assist in protecting our firefighters against modern day fires. Something we have to remember is we aren’t just firefighters, we are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends. This partnership will help ensure the health and safety of the future of the fire service,” said Captain John Gulotta, Tucson Fire Department.

The research also will evaluate the effectiveness of current recommendations by the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) and future interventions identified through a risk management process. The results will be disseminated through a strong partnership with fire service partners, including the FCSN, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association (Metro Chiefs), and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC).

Drs. Burgess and Snyder also work together as members of the UA BIO5 Institute, which aims to harness the collaborative power of its five core disciplines—agriculture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy and science—to find bold solutions to complex, biology-based challenges affecting humanity.