What does fighting wildfires do to your health?

Over the past several years, California’s wildfires have grown more frequent and more powerful. We’ve seen them pump out enough smoke to prompt air quality alerts in cities everywhere. And they’re even worse for the firefighters on the frontlines.

The firefighters who battle California’s raging wildfires often work 16 or more hours per day for as many as two weeks with no days off. They sleep under the skies, often in valleys where they inhale smoky air. Their bandanas are their only defense from the smoke. And all that smoke can wreak havoc on their health.

Not just a harmless barbecue fire

The dangers of building fires have been well-documented. In the wake of 9/11, scientists found that such fires exposed firefighters to a range of deadly chemicals and put them at an increased risk for lung diseases and different forms of cancer. But as NPR recently reported, scientists have only begun to explore what fighting wildfires can do to your health. Still, researchers have already noted the potential for exposure to a wide range of harmful materials, including:

  • Carbon monoxide
  • Acrolein
  • Nitrogen dioxide
  • Benzene
  • Formaldehyde
  • Residual herbicides

According to the U.S. Forest Service, wildland firefighters can expect to breathe in these substances while they hike trails with 40 to 120 pounds of food, water and equipment on their backs. Such hard exercise causes them to breathe more deeply and suck in more of the harmful materials floating in the smoke. This can put firefighters at greater risk of heart disease and cancer.

More research is needed

As NPR noted, the president has recently authorized funding for a national firefighter registry. This will help the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track any ties between wildland firefighting and cancer. And as scientists gain awareness of the dangers associated with the profession, wildland firefighters may see better training and equipment, as well as improved recovery from work-related health problems.

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