Breast Cancer Fund and the Women's Firefighter Biomonitoring Collaborative

Being a firefighter has always required bravery and fire safety smarts. But fighting fires in today's modern buildings, which are filled with chemicals, has increased the health risks to firefighters exponentially.

In recent decades, our reliance on chemicals has made firefighters' work environment more dangerous and unsafe. Our homes, business and industrial locations contain pounds of chemicals in sofas, chairs, electronics and plastics that are linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. When they burn, many of these chemicals create a toxic environment for firefighters.

In fact, more than 85,000 industrial chemicals are currently registered for use in the United States with less than 10% fully tested for their health effects. While breast cancer is understood to be a complex disease, a definitive body of scientific evidence links breast cancer to these pervasive chemicals in our environment. This is why the Breast Cancer Fund works to prevent breast cancer by eliminating our exposure to toxic chemicals linked to the disease. Firefighters are on the front line of toxic chemical exposures, which has resulted in a disproportionate number of firefighters facing chronic and life-threatening diseases, such as cancer. This has prompted both retired and active firefighters to ask questions about whether workplace exposures from fire suppression, fire investigation, and chemicals in fire stations could be a contributing factor.

In the Bay Area, women firefighters have noticed a surprising number of breast cancer cases on the force. Interested in learning if they have been exposed to chemicals linked to breast tumors, the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation and the United Fire Service Women approached environmental health advocates, including the Breast Cancer Fund, in 2012 with concerns about multiple cases of premenopausal breast cancer among their ranks. Those efforts spurred the Women's Firefighters Biomonitoring Collaborative Study.

With approximately 225 women in uniform, the San Francisco Fire Department has one of the largest populations of female firefighters in the nation (~13% of the city force) which made it an ideal study group. To our knowledge, this is the first study to assess chemical exposures (including exposure to chemicals linked to breast cancer) among women firefighters.

Funded by the California Breast Cancer Research Program, members of the San Francisco Fire Department have been working with the Breast Cancer Fund and researchers at UC Berkeley, UCSF, the Silent Spring Institute and Commonweal on this study that compares exposures in San Francisco women firefighters to women working in other city services. Representing the two groups under investigation, San Francisco's Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and San Francisco Supervisor Katy Tang also had their blood drawn for the study.

The study results will not only add to the knowledge about women's occupational exposures in general (an area that has been dramatically understudied) but will help make fighting fires safer. Findings from this research are revealing important occupational exposures for women firefighters, which, in turn, could inform policies and resources to reduce chemical exposures that will help sustain the health of both women and men in the fire service.

Extinguishing Breast Cancer from the Fire Service

While awaiting the study results, firefighters were determined to train their peers about ways they can protect their health starting now. This led to a companion project—“Extinguishing Breast Cancer from the Fire Service”—an interactive training for firefighters, by firefighters. The training explores: 

  1. Cancer in the fire service
  2. Chemical exposures in the fire service
  3. Firefighter Exposures and what to do about it
  4. Interventions that tip the scales towards health 

The Breast Cancer Fund and many groups involved in the study developed the training. BlueGreen Alliance is a new partner in the work with firefighters, as they had previously (with the Breast Cancer Fund) developed a training for the United Steelworkers (“Putting Breast Cancer out of Work”). The firefighter training was modeled after this project yet was re-envisioned for the firefighting audience. 

Pilot testing of the training took place in California in 2015, and final revisions are being made before presenting it nationwide. The long-term vision is a train-the-trainer program in which firefighters around the country will learn to present the training to their peers. This training is part of a change in how we think about firefighters' exposures, and in the kinds of workplace behaviors and policies that help to protect those who protect their communities.

To learn more about the study, please visit the Women Firefighter Biomonitoring website http://womenfirefighterstudy.com