International Firefighter Cancer Symposium Breaks Attendance Records

Article Summary
  • More than 1,300 in-person and online participants shared and discussed research on cancer risks for firefighters.
  • Occupation-acquired cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters.
  • Symposium speakers highlighted hidden dangers like lithium-ion batteries, which emit toxins when they catch fire and melt.

Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, welcomed a record number of attendees to its sixth annual International Firefighter Cancer Symposium, Feb. 22-23, in Miami.

More than 1,300 in-person and online participants shared and discussed research on cancer risks for firefighters.

Three firefighters point a hose at a house on fire
Occupation-acquired cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters.

“The symposium demonstrates Sylvester’s international leadership in addressing cancer in the fire service and provides an opportunity to bring diverse stakeholders—scientists, firefighter leadership, cancer survivors, advocates and policymakers—together to review our progress and map out our collective future impact,” said Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., director and principal investigator of the Firefighter Cancer Initiative (FCI) and symposium master of ceremony. 

“The 2024 symposium brought stakeholders from around the world to discuss and examine the state of the science in firefighter cancer research,” said Alberto Caban-Martinez, Ph.D., D.O., M.P.H.,  symposium master of ceremony and deputy director of the FCI.

Cancer Risk for Fire Service Workers

“The National Firefighter Cancer Initiative will celebrate 10 years of service and commitment to the fire service workforce and our laser focus on cancer research, education and clinical service on July 1, 2024,” said Dr. Caban-Martinez. “We held the first symposium in February 2019, with 325 people from the national firefighter community. In 2022, we had more than double the participation, with firefighters and researchers from around the world, which promulgated a name change from the National Firefighter Cancer Symposium to the International Firefighter Cancer Symposium.”

Dr. Alberto Caban-Martinez testing a firefighter.
Dr. Alberto Caban-Martinez (right) is one of the FCI’s leaders in firefighter cancer research.

According to Dr. Kobetz, also associate director of community outreach and engagement at Sylvester and the John K. and Judy H. Schulte Senior Endowed Chair in Cancer Research, the FCI’s mission to extinguish cancer risk among firefighters is a continuous effort.

Occupation-acquired cancer continues to be the leading cause of death among firefighters, said Danny Whu, M.D., M.P.H., chief medical officer for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which represents nearly 350,000 firefighters and paramedics in the U.S. and Canada.

“Approximately 75% of firefighters honored at our annual Fallen Fire Fighter Memorials have succumbed to occupational cancer,” said Dr. Whu, who spoke at this year’s symposium.

The International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC) classified occupational exposure as a firefighter as carcinogenic to humans.

“Moreover, last December, IARC also reclassified perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a type of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS), as a known carcinogen to humans. This and other types of PFAS are found in large quantities in our bunker gear, constituting a constant and unnecessary occupational carcinogenic exposure to firefighters,” Dr. Whu said. “These examples underscore why the fire service must continue to rely on dedicated and unbiased researchers like those found right here at the Firefighter Cancer Initiative in order to look after firefighters’ health, safety and well-being.”

Cancer Incidence Among Firefighters

This year’s keynote speaker, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Chief Executive Officer Victor Stagnaro, talked about the reality of cancer among firefighters.

“It is unlikely that any firefighter who has served for less than a couple of years doesn’t know someone who has battled cancer or, worse, has succumbed to it,” Stagnaro said.

The focus on cancer risk and firefighting, while it might seem never-ending, has led to life-saving changes.

“The 2010 multiyear National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study on firefighter cancer started a cascade of new studies and, moreover, changes in department policies and procedures to reduce exposures,” Stagnaro said.

Like in previous years, the key to preventing future cancer diagnoses in firefighters will be the research that changes policies and procedures, so fewer families will experience the grief of losing their loved ones, he said.

Miller School Establishing Fire Service Best Practices

“Thanks to the efforts of the University of Miami and the collaboration with the fire service, the work to eradicate the disease from the fire service continues,” Stagnaro said. “Attendees at this symposium learned about the most up-to-date research and best practices for protecting themselves and those around them from the carcinogens faced when fighting fires. These messages of prevention are essential learning for every firefighter.”

JoAnne E. Rice, M.P.A., C.F.O., director of the Florida Division of State Fire Marshal, opened the meeting by reinforcing the work being done at Sylvester and the University of Miami and the importance of making sure to put it into practice in the field.

“We need to make sure that we are all using the tools to help keep us safe in an unsafe and unpredictable job,” Rice said. “It’s really amazing to see so many people come together that are researching and developing things related to firefighter cancer to help us get past this.”

Rice stressed the magnitude of keeping up with sometimes hidden challenges.

“One example is with lithium-ion batteries and other new technologies that are creating health issues for our firefighters,” she said. “It’s important to keep in mind that there are not only risks associated with actually fighting the fire, which is dangerous, but also the risk of the exposure of the chemicals that come off of these technologies.”

When lithium-ion batteries catch fire and melt, they emit toxins that become embedded in firefighter gear. The gear is challenging to clean, so firefighters are re-exposed when they again don their gear, according to Rice.

Collaboration to Fight Fire Service Cancer

Firefighters cannot overcome the cancer threat alone, according to IAFF General President Edward Kelly.

“One of our priorities at the IAFF has been to build our bench—developing relationships with researchers, environmentalists, politicians and schools like the University of Miami—to tackle this fight head-on and end this deadly disease,” Kelly said. “And this fight isn’t just about us. It’s about the oath we took to protect you. Cancer affects us all.”

Natasha Schaefer Solle, Ph.D., and Alberto Caban-Martinez, D.O., Ph.D., M.P.H., center, with marine firefighters from Jacksonville Fire and Rescue's Station 39.
Dr. Natasha Schaefer Solle with Dr. Caban-Martinez (third from right) and marine firefighters from Jacksonville Fire and Rescue’s Station 39.

Year after year, this collaborative symposium allows those who attend to reflect on the science that ultimately drives discoveries,” said Natasha Schaefer Solle, Ph.D., FCI deputy director and investigator who, with Drs. Kobetz and Caban-Martinez, was a symposium master of ceremony. “That’s why we believe that our continued work to bring the firefighter service together under a roof once a year on a focused topic will guide the national firefighter cancer initiative to extinguish cancer in our first responders.”

Tags: Dr. Alberto Caban-Martinez, Dr. Erin Kobetz, Dr. Natasha Schaefer Solle, Firefighter Cancer Initiative, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center