Study aims to reduce cancer risk among firefighters

firefighters spraying a fire with water

Tucson Fire Department firefighters during a training session.

Kris Hanning/University of Arizona Health Sciences

A new study by researchers at the University of Arizona Health Sciences and Arizona State University, in collaboration with their fire service research partners, will examine ways to reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease among firefighters. The research is funded by a $4 million Regents' Research Grant from the Arizona Board of Regents.

Jeff Burgess

Jeff Burgess

Kris Hanning/University of Arizona Health Sciences

Earlier this year, occupational exposure as a firefighter was classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, changing from the previous classification as possibly carcinogenic. The reclassification came after studies, including several led by Dr. Jeff Burgess, professor in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, supplied evidence that occupational exposure as a firefighter causes cancer.

With this Regents' Research Grant, researchers will test the effectiveness of blood or plasma donations in lowering levels of cancer-causing "forever chemicals" – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS – and whether lower levels of PFAS reduce the risk of cancer or cardiovascular disease. Joining Burgess on the grant are Melissa Furlong, assistant professor at the Zuckerman College of Public Health; Floris Wardenaar, assistant professor of sports nutrition at Arizona State University; and firefighter research partners from fire departments across the state.

"These research questions came directly from the fire service, specifically to look at ways of preventing cancer and cardiovascular disease among firefighters," said Burgess, director of the new Center for Firefighter Health Collaborative Research at the Zuckerman College of Public Health, where the research will take place.

Firefighters come in contact with PFAS in many ways, including burning household items, potential contamination from personal protective equipment and firefighting foam.

The study will build on research performed in Australia that found PFAS levels in the blood could be reduced if a person donated blood every 12 weeks or plasma every six weeks. Burgess and the research team will first determine if firefighters in the U.S. will see the same benefit as those in Australia, and then expand the research to see if a reduction in PFAS levels leads to beneficial biological effects.

The research also builds on Burgess' prior work, which found changes in the DNA of veteran firefighters compared with new firefighters. The changes occurred over the first two to three years of a firefighter's career and were associated with the cumulative time spent at a fire during that time period.

"We'll be using epigenetic clocks, which use DNA in blood to measure how biologically old a person's cells are," said Burgess, whose prior research also showed that PFAS levels influence biological age. "If your cells are older than your chronological age, that puts you at risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, mortality from any cause, and a number of other things like neurodegenerative diseases. We want to see if lowering PFAS levels using blood or plasma donation also reduces the biological age of the cells, which would be a reflection of a lower level of risk for these disease outcomes."

Firefighters from multiple departments from around the state will participate in the study, which will also test evidence-based interventions to reduce cancer and cardiovascular risk, such as exercise, intermittent fasting or dietary supplements.

"Firefighters face unimaginable risks to save our loved ones, our homes and our communities and cancer is unfortunately one of those risks," said ABOR Chair Lyndel Manson. "This study will help us figure out if there are ways to reduce that risk. The board is tremendously grateful for the partnership and research between the universities and firefighters to find possible solutions."

A version of this article originally appeared on the UArizona Health Sciences website.

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