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New push in Arizona to study cancer dangers for wildland firefighters

Posted at 6:00 AM, Nov 21, 2021

PHOENIX — Protecting firefighters from getting cancer on the job. There is an elevated risk for city crews, but also wildland firefighters battling the flames in the desert. There is a new effort to keep our first responders safe.

The feds are putting $1.5 million into a study at the University of Arizona to learn more about cancer and firefighting. Researchers want to know what wildland firefighters are exposed to and how to prevent it.

"Firefighting is inherently dangerous for a lot of reasons," said Mesa Fire & Medical District Captain Steve Heyer.

Heyer should know. His friend, Trevor Madrid, died Sunday from work-related cancer after being diagnosed nearly three years ago.

“It was from 12-13 years of firefighting and going into these dangerous environments," added Heyer.

Madrid, like Heyer, was considered a municipal firefighter; one who battled flames at homes and other buildings. Wildland firefighters focus on those larger brush fires.

"Wildland firefighters go out there with pretty much a bandana on their faces. They don't have a breathing apparatus like we do,” added Heyer.

"There are fewer of them. Many times they don't stay as long in their jobs. So, all these things make it difficult to be able to study them as easily as the municipal firefighters,” said Dr. Jeff Burgess, a professor of public health and member of the

His school, along with others in California, Colorado, and Florida, are doing the research thanks to the grant from FEMA.

"Even though it may not be the same as going into a house, with the same materials burning there, you still get exposure to carcinogens,” added Dr. Burgess.

Burned vegetation, Dr. Burgess says, creates chemicals that can cause cancer. Those chemicals and soot left in the skin for extended periods of time are big concerns.

"We don't know their cancer risks. We know some of their exposures, but we don't know them completely. We don't know what we can do to reduce their exposures,” added Dr. Burgess.

Heyer told ABC15 Madrid was a special guy who was valued at the Mesa Fire and Medical District. He says, without hesitation, he's 'all for' any study that can be done to help his brothers and sisters figure out how firefighters are exposed to cancer, why it affects them the way it does, and how to help prevent it.