Sylvester Hosts International Firefighter Cancer Symposium: A Global Collaborative to Fight Occupational Cancer Risk
Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Firefighter Cancer Initiative hosted its fifth International Firefighter Cancer Symposium February 23 and 24 in Miami, welcoming more than 750 scientists, firefighters, governmental and organization officials, and industry experts from around the world with the common goal to extinguish job-related cancer in the firefighter community.
“The International Firefighter Cancer Symposium provides a necessary platform for scientists, first responders and cancer advocates to have a bi-directional exchange of ideas that can drive new areas of research focus and policy change. We are particularly excited by the participation of multiple National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers this year, and the opportunity to brainstorm how we can work collectively to drive new directions and innovation,” said Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate director for population science and cancer disparities and John K. and Judy H. Schulte Senior Endowed Chair in Cancer Research at Sylvester.
Occupationally acquired cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters, according to Danny Whu, M.D., M.P.H., chief medical officer for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which represents more than 334,000 firefighters and paramedics in the U.S. and Canada.
“Year after year, approximately 75% of firefighters honored at our annual Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial have succumbed to cancer,” said Dr. Whu, who delivered opening remarks at the meeting and presented on needed improvements in firefighter gear. “Through its dedicated and unbiased research, the Firefighter Cancer Initiative plays an integral part in promoting the health, safety and wellbeing of firefighters. The IAFF is blessed to have the Firefighter Cancer Initiative as a friend to the fire service and is honored to participate in the planning, development, and delivery of its 2023 International Firefighter Cancer Symposium.”
For the first time, the federal government at the highest levels is focused on firefighter cancer, according to symposium speaker Lori Moore-Merrell, Dr.P.H., M.P.H., U.S. Fire Administrator at the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). USFA is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Partners Against Cancer
The U.S. government’s focus on reducing cancer risk from firefighting includes the President, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and USFA’s efforts to bring together federal partners and national fire service organizations to stand against cancer with #OneVoice, according to Dr. Moore-Merrell. She said it was “imperative” that she attend the Symposium given the government’s focus.
“The International Firefighter Cancer Symposium brings together top fire service researchers, data scientists, and occupational medicine experts to jointly focus on the continuing scourge of cancer on firefighters. The Symposium is also an opportunity for these professionals to collaborate with firefighters who are cancer survivors and those who are passionate about changing the current trajectory of cases. Therefore, it is imperative that the USFA be present to hear the latest science and to discuss the cancer strategy component of the Fire Service National Strategy,” Dr. Moore-Merrell said.
Headlining the 2023 symposium was the unveiling of findings from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer’s 400-plus page Monograph Volume 132, an extensive document compiled by 25 scientists from eight countries. The monograph evaluates cancer among firefighters on a global scale.
“The executive summary was published in The Lancet Oncology in June 2022. We are formally announcing the summary results of the full monograph, which synthesizes several years of firefighter cancer research at the meeting,” said Alberto J. Caban-Martinez, D.O. Ph.D., M.P.H., C.P.H., deputy director of Sylvester’s Firefighter Cancer Initiative and associate professor of public health sciences at the Miller School, who was one of the 25 scientists chosen to compose the monograph. “The big messages are that there is an overabundance of evidence that occupational exposure as a firefighter is carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), specifically for bladder cancer and mesothelioma. Other cancers, including colon, prostate, testicular, melanoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which were not as visible on the radar in the past, were elevated in this monograph. There is limited but increasing evidence that these other cancers are also job related.”
Implementing Positive Change
Speakers addressed not only the latest research and technology, but also labor issues and how to implement positive change in local fire departments. In some cases, those in the field and firefighter leaders, like Dr. Whu, took to the podium to point out what needs to be changed to make firefighting safer.
“To firefighters, bunker gear is as necessary as water to be able to extinguish fires safely. However, we were not told that there are chemicals in our bunker gear that are toxic and carcinogenic, like PFAS,” Dr. Whu said. “PFAS manufacturers have known about the deleterious effects of this class of synthetic forever-chemicals for decades, yet they promoted it as safe, and continue to do so to this day. … the IAFF, through the leadership of General President Edward Kelly, is committed to the eradication of deadly PFAS from our bunker gear.”
The Firefighter Cancer Initiative and annual symposiums impact firefighters near and far, according to Christopher Bator, division chief of Safety, Health and Wellness at the Coral Springs-Parkland Fire Department, in Florida, and president of the Florida Firefighters Safety and Health Collaborative.
Taking Science to the Streets
“We are so fortunate and grateful to have such a great institution, partnership and resource in our own backyard, not only to better understand the problem, but also to work together to take the science to the streets to reduce exposure and risks to our firefighters,” Bator said. “In addition, should a firefighter come down with this terrible disease, we have a partner in Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Firefighter Cancer Initiative to support our firefighter family as they battle this disease.”
The symposium presents a unique opportunity to protect those who protect us, said Natasha Schaefer Solle, Ph.D., RN, co-deputy director of Sylvester’s Firefighter Cancer Initiative and research assistant professor at Sylvester.
“When we started the symposium in 2019, it was the National Firefighter Cancer Symposium. In 2023 because of the increased interest from around the world on the topic of firefighting and cancer, we rebranded the meeting as the International Firefighter Cancer Symposium,” Dr. Solle said. “Often what emerges from this rich scientific symposium is better understanding and awareness of real-world practical solutions for cancer control and prevention for firefighters, tools that can be taken immediately back to the fire station and union to implement in controlling carcinogenic exposures, and the creation of new avenues of investigation that can solve real-world firefighter requests.”
Sylvester stands out as a leader in the field of occupational cancer research, according to Dr. Caban-Martinez.
“As an NCI-designated Cancer Center and among all the world’s cancer centers, Sylvester is the only one to have a specific and dedicated focus on firefighter cancer research,” he said.