Study: Smoke Exposure Heightens Mortality Risk for Wildland Firefighters

Apr 26, 2019

A first-of-its-kind study reveals the increased risks of lung disease and cardiovascular mortality for wildland firefighters due to smoke exposure. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.

Firefighters monitor a prescribed burn on the Coconino National Forest
Credit Melissa Sevigny

Firefighters carried air sampling devices during their shifts to record measurements of smoke exposure. Researchers used that data to extrapolate health risks. A five-year career with short fire seasons increased the risk of dying from lung cancer by 8 percent, and the risk of cardiovascular mortality by 16 percent. For 25-year-long careers and longer seasons, those numbers climbed past 30 percent.

Kathleen Navarro of the U.S. Forest Service is the lead author of the study. She says, "We're seeing an increase in the number of wildfires each year with a longer fire season… and that there is potential for adverse long term health outcomes. We need to start thinking about ways to reduce exposure to bring that risk down."

Those ways could include minimizing “mop up” activities after a fire is contained, or rotating crews more often. Navarro says, "Maybe you don’t have a firefighter just standing there eating the smoke, you only send them in at certain interval times to check and make sure the fire hasn’t crossed the line."

Navarro adds the study likely underestimates health risks because it focuses on wildfires. For future research, she wants to look at prescribed burns as well.

The study appeared in the journal Environmental Research.