James Researcher: Firefighter Cancer Registry Act a “Positive Step Forward”

firefighters

Bipartisan legislation aimed at creating a national registry to collect data on the incidence of cancer among firefighters is awaiting the president’s signature. If signed into law, H.R. 931, the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2018, could take effect in the next few weeks. This new law is expected to provide improved resources for research into the occupational hazards faced by approximately one million professional and volunteer firefighters in the United States.

By asking firefighters to voluntarily enter their demographics and health information into a national registry, public health researchers hope to better determine the increased risk these firefighters assume. This could lead to identifying and screening for specific cancers along with improved safety protocols and safeguards.

U.S. firefighters respond to 35 million calls for assistance annually. Statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) show they are exposed to nearly two million fires or hazardous materials incidents each year. These are alarming numbers of unhealthy environments our brave public servants must endure.

There are no large-scale studies that identify specific exposures that may contribute to any of the disparate cancers associated with the disease among firefighters. There is only limited information about the significance of the public health problem created by this higher cancer rate. Congressional funding for the national registry will provide $2.5 million over the next four years and perhaps elevate this issue into the national conversation.

Studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have indicated a strong link between firefighting and a heightened risk of certain types of cancer and cancer-related deaths. Rates of several cancers—including colon, lung, melanoma, mesothelioma, prostate, rectal, stomach and brain cancer—were higher in firefighters when compared to the general population. The NIOSH studies, among 30,000 firefighters from Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, showed an increased cancer link attributable to frequent exposure to several harmful toxins.

As researchers at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, my colleague Olorunfemi Adetona, PhD, and I are leading a two-year project throughout the state of Ohio to build on those NIOSH findings. Through interviews with local fire authorities, we know anecdotally about the health problems created through smoke inhalation and additional on-the-job dangers. Our current research includes the comparison of blood and urine samples from firefighters before and after fires as well as the comparison of biological samples among firefighters that have recently been diagnosed with cancer to those that have never been diagnosed with cancer. The goal is to determine answers about carcinogens and other factors leading to increased cancer rates among firefighters.

Under the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will create a specialized data collection point allowing firefighters throughout the country to voluntarily and anonymously input information about their years of service, the number of calls responded to and other occupational exposures for scientific examination.

A national registry will be a rich database for the isolation of current exposure and operational risk factors across many fire departments nationwide. With accumulation of data over time, such a registry can allow for a time trend analysis to determine changes in cancer incidence, determine whether changes in firefighting operations contribute toward increased risk or are effective at controlling it and isolate emerging risk factors.

The analyses of data in such a registry can allow for the identification of fire departments or states with low cancer risk and thereby point to firefighting operations with best work practices. This will allow for the quick dissemination of best practices to improve the occupational health of firefighters.

The value of this registry will hopefully allow us to move past small sample sizes that previously have underrepresented women, minorities and volunteer firefighters. Improved research collection related to cancer incidence among firefighters is a positive step forward and we look forward to accessing important data from the creation of the Firefighter Cancer Registry. We strongly urge President Trump to sign this bill into law so work can continue on a national scale.

Author Susan Olivo-Marston is a cancer control researcher at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute and assistant professor of epidemiology at The Ohio State University College of Public Health. She is also a former volunteer firefighter and EMT.

Post originally published 7/6/2018 on The Hill.