Wildland Fire Fighters:
Exposure Assessment and Carcinogenic Effects

A FEMA-Funded Research Project 

Page created: Monday, September 27, 2021 | Last Updated: Monday,  September 27, 2021

  • Wildland firefighters are exposed to multiple carcinogens including but not limited to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), formaldehyde and benzene in smoke from wildland and wildland-urban-interface (WUI) fires. In addition to smoke inhalation, wildland firefighters are exposed to carcinogens absorbed through their skin.

  • Cancer is a leading cause of fire service morbidity and mortality in municipal firefighters, but it has not been possible to conduct an adequately sized epidemiologic study to directly measure cancer rates in wildland firefighters, although based on their exposures we expect increased cancer rates. Since cancer has a long latency period between exposure and disease onset, measurements are needed now that can identify which exposures are causing carcinogenic effects and that can also determine the effectiveness of new interventions on a much shorter time interval. 

Forest Fire

Project Specific Aims: 

  1. Evaluate acute exposure to carcinogens during wildland and WUI responses. We will focus on wildland firefighters working for state departments, volunteer fire districts with predominantly wildland and WUI fire responses, and hand crews of county fire departments that also respond predominantly to wildland and WUI fires.

  2. Measure biomarkers of chronic carcinogenic effect. The study participants will include incumbent wildland firefighters and new recruit firefighters. Epigenetic biomarkers of carcinogenic effect will be evaluated to identify

Study Timeline: 

Wild Forest Fires

Anticipated Impact:

The proposed research will provide essential information on exposure to carcinogens in wildland firefighters and mechanisms by which these exposures increase cancer risk. The detailed evaluation of exposures will inform exposure-reduction interventions.

Study Team:

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Dr. Jeff Burgess
University of Arizona
Project Co-PI 
Dr. Alberto Caban-Martinez
University of Miami
Co-Investigator / DCC Director
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Dr. Kat Navarro
Shawn Beitel
University of Arizona
Research Specialist / Project Co-Leader
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Dr. Tiffany Lipsey
Colorado State University
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Dr. Miram Calkins
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Sally Littau
University of Arizona
Biomarker Lab Coordinator
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Veronica Lugo
University of Arizona
Project Coordinator
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Dr. Matt Rahn
Wildfire Conservancy
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Dr. Natasha Schaefer Solle
University of Miami
Co-Investigator / DCC Director
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Paola Louzado Feliciano 
University of Miami
Central IRB Analyst /
Regulatory Affairs
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Simi Oduwole 
University of Miami
Research Support Specialist