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Member Research and Reports

Harvard:  Cancer Alarm at the Firehouse: Researchers Team with Departments to Examine On-Site Health Threats

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers have teamed up with local fire departments to tackle a health care mystery: How does the firehouse itself increase cancer risk among firefighters?

Led by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Emily Sparer, researchers, including students from Harvard and MIT, tested air quality in three older Boston firehouses and examined the results against air quality in a newer Arlington station, renovated roughly a decade ago to minimize transfer of pollutants from the truck bay to living quarters.

Compared with conditions inside a burning building, firehouses may seem benign places. But because firefighters spend so much time in the firehouse, even low-level exposure might be hazardous, said Professor Dr. Glorian Sorensen, director of the Harvard’s Center for Work, Health, and Well-Being and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Center for Community-Based Research, who has overseen the research.

Diesel exhaust, for example, is a carcinogen, and in older firehouses — Boston’s date from the 1800s to 1980s — the truck bays are near the living quarters. Also, the design of the buildings is such that air flows easily through doorways and the hole in the floor for the fire pole, Dr. Sparer said.

“[Fighting fires] is very important, however, a lot of firefighters actually don’t spend the majority of their shifts fighting fires,” Dr. Sparer said. “They respond to car accidents or are at the fire station, where there might be other kinds of exposures that haven’t been looked at.”

Dr. Sparer’s team investigated three locations at the four stations — truck bay, kitchen, and outside the building — and conducted interviews with firefighters about living conditions and health habits.

The pilot study, supported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, examined two types of pollutants: tiny particles generated in fossil fuel combustion that have been shown to be harmful, and potentially cancer-causing chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The results were published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

The research showed that age and layout of the station affected how effectively truck exhaust was captured and vented, that pollutants at each station were highest in the truck bays, and that pollutant levels in the living areas — where the firefighters spend a substantial amount of time — were lowest in the Arlington station designed to restrict air flow from the truck bay.

The results not only show that building design is an important factor in protecting firefighters, Dr. Sparer said, they also support the case for a larger study on which recommendations for interventions can be based.

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