Firefighters’ strikingly high cancer rates may be partly due to exposures to contaminants in firehouses, says Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researcher Emily Sparer.

In a September 13, 2018 commentary for WBUR’s “Cognoscenti,” Sparer, a research associate in the Healthy Buildings program in the Department of Environmental Health, wrote that firefighters can be exposed to contaminants from the truck bay, such as diesel exhaust, which can migrate into living quarters through open doors and fire pole holes. Contaminants from fire-exposed gear may also pose a risk.

It’s unclear how much of firefighters’ cancer risk is from fires and how much is from firehouse carcinogens. “We just don’t know,” Sparer wrote. “We need to include the firehouse in a holistic approach to reduce cancer rates. We need to acknowledge that firehouse exposures to carcinogens are part of the firefighter cancer story, and we need to focus on strategies to minimize the likelihood of such exposures.”

Steps to reduce exposures could include limiting how air moves between the truck bay and living quarters, and making sure that firefighters’ gear and equipment is cleaned regularly, Sparer wrote.

Sparer also discussed her research on health risks in fire stations in a September 5, 2018 video from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection’s (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Sparer’s project is a collaboration between two NIOSH-funded Centers at Harvard.

Read WBUR’s “Cognoscenti” article: Firefighters Put Their Lives On The Line In Fires — And At Firehouses

Watch the CDC NIOSH video featuring Emily Sparer: Health Risks in the Fire Station

Learn more

Firehouses matter for firefighter health (Harvard Chan School Healthy Buildings Program)

Firefighters face high risk of cancer (Harvard Chan School news)

Firefighters’ workplace cancer risk explored (Harvard Chan School news)