Common Diseases and Health Problems of Firefighters

This is an article that was written by a reader. He is passionate about firefighter health and safety and wanted to pass along some information.  We all know that we can always do better when it comes to our own health.  We do a good job of promoting safety to our citizens and community, but neglect the same message for our own safety.

Read the article and pass on the information.  Thanks to Taylor for submitting it.



Common Diseases and Health Problems of Firefighters

The dangers of firefighting are not always readily apparent.  Obviously, the most visible hazard is the fire itself and the severe damage it causes to the structure the firefighter must enter.  However, even without serious injury, firefighters have a high risk of long-term health problems as a result of their occupation.

Chronic Respiratory Problems & cardiovascular disease

Even if the smoke from a particular fire does not contain any toxic substances, it can still have a detrimental effect on the firefighter’s health.  Smoke and dust inhalation can exacerbate existing heart and lung problems, as well as cause new problems like bronchitis or lung inflammation.  While most fire stations are equipped with self-contained respirators, they are often impractical for lengthy jobs such as wildfires, when 30 minutes of oxygen may not be nearly enough to get the job done.  While treatments such as steroid inhalers can help mitigate the symptoms, more research needs to be done on the long-term effects of smoke and dust inhalation.

No one would argue that firefighting is not a high-stress occupation.  Even the most careful firefighter must deal with extreme stress on a regular basis, and that kind of strain takes a toll on the body.  Chronic stress wears down the body’s immune system, making it more prone to other diseases.  But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of stress is its effect on the heart – hypertension (high blood pressure) is very common among firefighters, and left unchecked, it can lead to stroke, heart attacks, and aneurysms.  Smoke, too, has a detrimental effect on the heart and blood vessels when it prevents the blood from properly delivering oxygen to all systems of the body.  The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety lists cardiac death as the most common cause of fatality in firefighters.



Asbestos is widely known as a health hazard.  However, though it is no longer used in the manufacture of new construction materials, it is still commonly found in homes and other buildings constructed before the 1980s.  When intact, asbestos-containing materials pose little danger to the residents, but firefighters most often contend with these materials as they are being destroyed.  Tiny, needle-like asbestos fibers can be inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause serious health problems including symptoms of mesothelioma, an aggressive and extremely deadly cancer of the lining of the chest.  By the time these symptoms appear, the disease has often progressed past the point of treatment. This makes mesothelioma life expectancy extremely severe and short on average.

Other Cancers

Asbestos is not the only toxin released by burning buildings.  Firefighters also have unusually high rates of cancer such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple melanomas, and testicular and prostate cancer.  Unlike mesothelioma, there is not a known direct link between the particular toxic chemicals and these cancers (for example, we cannot say that chemical X causes cancer Y), but there is no doubt that firefighters come in regular contact with clouds of toxic smoke in the course of their jobs.

The chronic health effects of firefighting have received more press in recent years due to the heroics of the New York Fire Department during and after the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11.  Just recently, Congress passed the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to provide health care to those who responded after the terrorist attacks and are still experiencing illness.  Hopefully, both lawmakers and the public alike will continue to remember that the danger to firefighters does not disappear as soon as the fire is out.

Taylor Dardan is an EMS/First Responder Health and Safety Advocate.  He is very passionate about making sure that firefighters and other first responders are properly aware of various hidden dangers surrounding rescue work.


  • Pat says:

    My husband retired fireman coughs a lot if he is in cold or dust her way worse then the rest of us

  • Clarence Winters says:

    I was a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force from 1960 thru 1964 and there were no oxygen tanks, no breathing apparatus when we re-filled the extinguishers and while we extinguished the fires. I have both knees replaced, 5 way bypass on my heart,my back was fussed and had bladder cancer. I was wondering how the job could have contributed these problems?

  • Norman Fetterman says:

    There has been comments about AFFF causing cancer so what are the facts about this. From 1967 to 1978 were did not where breathing apparaus an d all of a sudden thr AF firefighters have to wear it either under there hoods or structural gear and seems odd some fire fighters have passed on and the air force covering it up. WHY I guess they final found out that within the mixture of afff there is a cancer casuing agent and does not want to be sued in class action case. So why not tell the truth about AFFF Foam and who the manufacture was and provde the orginal MSDS Sayety Sheets. I do nothing but cough and have lower back problems also.

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