By Jen Singer
Recent studies have suggested some surprising things (not beaming from the center of our solar system) that might increase your risk for skin cancer. We delved into the research on several of these, which we are sharing in a series of articles here. The first looked at drinking white wine. The second focused on some commonly prescribed medications. The third addressed three common medical conditions. This one takes a look at the already perilous job of being a firefighter. If you are one, or know someone who is, here’s what you need to know.
Firefighters risk their lives every day, whether running into burning buildings or battling out-of-control wildfires, but the menace doesn’t come just from the fire. They may face an increased risk for developing melanoma, the most dangerous of the three most common types of skin cancer.
While studies have long shown a connection between firefighters and higher rates of cancers such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, the link to skin cancer was not identified until recently. In a study published in 2017 in JAMA Dermatology of 2,400 firefighters in South Florida, about .7 percent were diagnosed with melanoma and 3.5 percent had nonmelanoma skin cancers — higher rates than those among the general population of Florida. Firefighters were also found to be diagnosed with melanoma at younger ages — an average of 42 compared with 64 for the U.S. population.
This is not just a problem in the U.S. In an Australian study, firefighters had a 45 percent higher rate of melanoma over the course of their careers than the general population.
Scientists aren’t sure why firefighters have an increased risk for developing melanoma, but it may be linked to chemicals from the combustion of materials or from flame retardants used to put out fires.
The occupational hazards of being a firefighter have led to the creation of laws that help them obtain disability benefits should they develop certain cancers, including melanoma. This means they no longer have to prove that their cancer is job-related to become eligible for benefits. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, at least 33 states have laws presuming that certain types of cancer are a job-related illness for firefighters who file for disability benefits.
In some states, the coverage extends to volunteer firefighters. Beginning in 2019, the New York State Volunteer Firefighter Gap Coverage Cancer Disability Benefits Act takes effect to ensure disability coverage for volunteer firefighters who have certain cancers, including melanoma. Additional states may follow suit.
Jen Singer is a health writer based near New York City.
Articles in this series: