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New research underway to determine cancer risk facing women firefighters

Researchers using biomonitoring to gain evidence, insight

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The fire service continues to support breast cancer awareness for women firefighters.

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By Robert Avsec for FireRescue1 BrandFocus

The fire service continues to support breast cancer awareness for women firefighters.

“There are a small but growing number of studies with women firefighters and the specific cancer risks they face,” said Keith Tyson, VP of education and research for the nonprofit Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN).

Tyson noted the 2005 study by University of Miami researchers that compared Florida firefighters’ cancer rates to those of the general Florida population. It was the first such study to include women. The research included 2,017 women firefighters and found 52 instances of cancer among them.

Statistically speaking, it’s a small sample size, but the most prominent cancers for women firefighters in the study were breast (27.8 percent) skin (7.6 percent), thyroid (5.6 percent) and lung (4.6 percent).


In San Francisco, the Women Firefighters Biomonitoring Collaborative Study (WFBCS) is underway

In 2012, women firefighters from the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) contacted environmental health advocates with their concerns about multiple cases of premenopausal breast cancer within their ranks. They discussed the need to understand breast cancer risk factors among women firefighters, particularly regarding chemical exposures on the job.

Together, they recruited environmental health researchers from the University of California—Berkeley and the Silent Spring Institute to develop a research study. The primary purpose for the study is to investigate what impact occupational exposures have on the bodies of women firefighters, particularly how those chemical exposures might suggest a link to breast cancer in premenopausal women firefighters.


The San Francisco study is believed to be the first of its kind; it will assess chemical exposures, including exposure to chemicals linked to breast cancer, among women firefighters.

The SFFD has one of the largest populations of women firefighters in the United States, at about 225 women in uniform.

The researchers recruited 80 women firefighters from the San Francisco Fire Department and 80 women from other civil services to participate in the study. The WFBCS research team will measure chemicals it suspects will be elevated in SFFD firefighters and scan for other chemicals using the latest innovations in occupational medical research.


The WFBCS is employing human biomonitoring, a study method that measures the level of chemicals in human bodies and the effects those chemicals have on the body.

The research team’s efforts are focused on using the study data to address its three primary research questions:

1. Are levels of chemicals, including chemicals that research suggests may increase the risk of breast cancer, higher among women firefighters than other women?

2. Are there other, previously unknown, chemical exposures that are higher among women firefighters compared to women non-firefighter controls?

3. Are there early indicators of biological changes associated with chemical exposures and exposure to chronic night shift work, including:

  • disruption of thyroid hormones (that sustain the body’s metabolic functions);
  • lower levels of melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep/wake cycles);
  • and changes in telomere length (a biomarker of cellular aging)?

To begin the study, researchers interviewed and collected blood and urine samples from each woman. The researchers used those samples to measure exposures to certain chemicals with potential links to increased breast cancer, including products of combustion, diesel engine exhaust, and other chemicals firefighters may frequently encounter.

The research team also is using one of the newest tools available for biomonitoring, Time-of-Flight (TOF). TOF is a non-specific technology that scans a sample for chemicals based on their molecular weight. This enables researchers to detect chemicals that were not known or predicted to be elevated in study subjects.

Finally, the research team is evaluating early indicators of adverse health outcomes, including changes in thyroid hormones, melatonin levels, and altered telomere length, which may be related to chemical exposure or night shift work.

The combined results from all participants will be made available to all participants, firefighters and civil employees. Individual results will be made confidentially available to individual participants who want them.


Women firefighters of the SFFD initiated this study and have been involved in every step along the way, including the development of the research questions and the overall study design.

They continue to be engaged in the research process, and they already have secured $60,000 from the firefighters’ union to ensure the capacity to educate and disseminate research findings throughout the SFFD, to other firefighters across the United States, and to fire service decision makers.

“We hope the San Francisco study – and results from others who are researching cancer risks for women in the fire service – will give us more hard data that may help us develop targeted cancer-prevention approaches for our sister firefighters,” Tyson said.