By Jen Singer
There’s long been a link between career firefighters and cancer, including skin cancer. Recent research looks more specifically at melanoma. Here’s what firefighters need to know.
Recent studies have suggested some surprising things (besides that giant ball of radiation at 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. We first reported on this when a study published in 2017 in JAMA Dermatology of 2,400 firefighters in South Florida found that 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.
More recently, a 2023 JAAD review of five studies looked at melanoma risk in career firefighters. Four of the studies showed an increased risk in career firefighters compared with nonfirefighters. The fifth study found an increased risk in older firefighters aged 55 to 74 compared with police officers. Only one study included female firefighters. (Women represent only about 5 percent of all career firefighters, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.)
The review authors wrote that “firefighters’ exposure to carcinogenic combustion byproducts, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, metals and polychlorinated biphenyls, has prompted concern for increased cancer risk.” When it comes to pinpointing risk for melanoma, they concluded that future studies could be strengthened by including not only data on exposure to carcinogenic chemicals but also firefighters’ exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light as well as their sun protection behaviors and personal and family history of skin cancer.
This is not just a problem in the United States. In an Australian study, firefighters had a 45 percent higher rate of melanoma over the course of their careers than the general population.
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. Today, all 50 states have laws that create a presumption that a cancer diagnosis is job-related for career firefighters. In some states, including New York, the coverage extends to volunteer firefighters. Additional states may follow suit.
Jen Singer is a health writer based near New York City.
Articles in this series: