Scientists embark on study to learn why firefighters have heart attacks

Researchers will closely monitor 50 firefighters over the two-year study

By Craig Brown
The Scotsman

EDINBURG, Scotland — Scientists are to investigate why firefighters are more at risk from heart attacks than any other emergency service workers.

• Scientists to investigate why firefighters at higher risk of heart attacks than other emergency service workers
• Firefighters far more likely to suffer heart attack than smokers'

Statistics have shown that despite undergoing regular health and fitness checks, members of fire crews are more prone to suffer from cardiac arrests — which kills thousands of Scots every year — than any other branch of the emergency services.

A heart attack is the leading cause of death for on-duty firefighters, and they also tend to suffer cardiac arrest at a younger age than the general population.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) has provided £187,000 to support the new study, which will see academics from Edinburgh University monitor 50 firefighters over a two-year period. Researchers will follow them during fire training — where they tackle blazes at up to 700 degrees Celsius — to work out the effect their job has on the heart.

A heart attack occurs when one of the coronary arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle becomes blocked, while a cardiac arrest is when a person's heart stops pumping blood round the body and they stop breathing normally.

Many cardiac arrests in adults happen because the person is having a heart attack.

Dr Nick Mills, the consultant cardiologist leading the research at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, said: "The risk of having a heart attack whilst you're in service as a firefighter is highest during fire suppression activity, compared to any other emergency activity.

"A cigarette smoker might have a two-fold risk of having a heart attack — but there's a 30-fold increased risk of having a heart attack during fire suppression activity."

A previous study in America has even put the risk of death from heart attack for firefighters when battling a blaze at up to 100 times the normal rate,

The U.S. research also showed that though firefighters spend only one to five percent of their time putting out fires, 32 percent of deaths from heart attacks occurred at fire scenes.

Though the reason for the increased risk is not fully understood, experts suspect that it may be connected to a combination of the heat and the different stresses placed on the body when fighting a fire.

Dr Hélène Wilson, research advisor at the BHF, said that toxins and smoke given off from fires were also contributing factors.

"We can't be sure exactly what the effects of air pollution are on the heart, particularly at the low levels we find in most UK cities.

"But there is convincing evidence that even low levels of air pollution might be bad for the heart. At higher levels — like those faced by firefighters, for example, or in developing cities like Beijing — pollutants are likely to have a more serious and long-lasting effect. This project will help bring us closer to working out the reasons why pollutants can have such a harmful effect on heart health."

One of those who agreed to take part is Watch Commander Stevie Young of Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service (LBFRS).

Mr Young, 48, said: "My father passed away in his 50s with heart trouble and he started getting heart trouble in his 40s.

"I'm 48 now so I think it's beneficial to find out especially with the job I'm in, quite an active job, so it's beneficial for me to find out more about it."

The Edinburgh study will focus on taking measurements of the heart and blood vessels of the firefighters involved in the study.

By improving the understanding of how tackling fires places such a strain on the body, researchers hope to develop new ways to look after and protect the health of firefighters.

Initial findings of researchers have suggested that even simple measures such as drinking water more frequently could reduce the level of risk of attacks.

LBFRS Group Safety Commander David Mackie said: "There's obviously a huge amount of variables in this and so there hasn't been a huge amount of research in this country.

"It's really important that we bottom this out and get the facts about it and try and do as much as we can to prevent any ill-health among our staff."

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