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Are Firefighters Vulnerable to Toxic Exposure?

Firefighters risk their lives to protect others from structural fires and wildfires. As you might expect, they can be killed fighting fires if they inhale smoke, are burned or are crushed by objects. However, you and other Iowa residents may not anticipate the long-term risks that these courageous men and women also face from exposure to toxins – not just smoke – that are released by fires.

According to Wildfire Today, recent studies have shown that firefighters have a 22 to 24 percent higher risk of dying from lung cancer, cardiovascular disease or ischemic heart disease after only 10 years serving on a project fire crew. After 15 to 20 years on the crew, their mortality risks from those diseases significantly increase. You may know that smoke contains numerous toxins from chemicals and airborne particles that firefighters can breathe in. Some of the most deadly include carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, crystalline silica, benzine and particulate matter. The health-compromising symptoms and diseases caused by these smoke-borne toxins can include the following:

  • Dizziness, confusion or loss of consciousness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of mental acuity
  • Irritation of the eyes, skin and upper respiratory tract
  • Lung disease
  • Cancer

You might wonder how the firefighter in your life can protect himself or herself from these devastating illnesses. Firefighters and supervisors are encouraged to keep their training updated on smoke hazards and safety precautions. Limiting the length of the shift on major wildfires or rotating crews out of areas containing heavy smoke might provide further protection from overexposure.

Like other workers who are exposed to toxic substances or injured on the job, firefighters may be eligible for workers’ compensation. This information is meant to educate you, however, and should replace the advice of a lawyer.