It is an observed fact that firefighters get more skin cancer than is usual, and research has revealed possible reasons for this.
Firefighters are faced with some unique exposures, for example carcinogenic chemicals found in firefighting foam that remains clinging to gear during and after a fire response. After using firefighting foam, a firefighter has these toxic chemicals close to their skin, and sometimes this can be for long periods of time, for example during long, arduous battles against raging flames, with extreme fires sometimes lasting many days or even a week.
Firefighting is a hazardous occupation regardless of chemical exposure, however this element adds another area of extra care to the health of our firefighting forces.
A study undertaken in Florida in the United States looked at skin cancer screening and sun protection habits amongst local firefighters. A questionnaire asked for information about skin cancer diagnoses in the past, skin cancer risk factors, sunburn frequency, tanning bed use, health insurance status, skin cancer screening, socioeconomic factors, and job characteristics.
The results of the study found that amongst 2,500 firefighters, most were about age 40 and had been firefighting for 15 years. Out of those firefighters, there were 109 cases of skin cancer (4.5 per cent), with 17 of those being melanomas and the rest being non-melanoma or skin cancer of unknown type. Non-melanoma skin cancers were diagnosed about four years earlier than melanomas and unknown types of skin cancers, at a skin cancer clinic, specialist, or doctor.
When it came to sun protection, most firefighters wore sunscreen when outside, and was reported the least in those people who reported skin cancers of unknown type at a skin cancer clinic. Those who experienced skin cancers and the general firefighting population were more likely to have bare legs when outside compared to those without skin cancer.
Caucasian firefighters were the most likely to have skin cancers as diagnosed at a skin cancer clinic, however age was also a predictor. Those with a history of skin cancers were the most likely to wear sunscreen most or all of the time when outdoors.
A higher percentage of younger firefighters are experiencing skin cancer compared to the general population (age of diagnosis is earlier at 42 rather than 64 years of age), creating the very real possibility of a higher risk of skin cancers amongst firefighters. The study group had more melanomas than other groups studied in Florida. This may be because of UV light exposure outside of work and other high-risk activities like sunbeds, but this higher number could be due to carcinogenic components of firefighting foams creating the perfect storm for skin cancers to develop. More research is required to understand these risks.
Australian firefighters and skin cancer risk – skin cancer clinics in Melbourne
Australian firefighters are at even more risk of skin cancers than their Florida comrades, because the ozone layer in Australia has been degraded far more than that over Florida. For this reason, it is more important than ever for Australian firefighters to have regular skin checks at their local dermatologist, skin cancer clinic, or mole mapping clinic. Toxic firefighting foam necessitates more regular health checks and extra diligence.
Our Melbourne skin cancer clinic dermatologists are experts in skin cancer.