Firefighters' Health: Up in Smoke?

Dr. Peter Wagner, past president of the American Thoracic Society and professor of medicine and bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego, said that firefighters' acute smoke exposure may lead to health effects ranging from mild bronchitis to fatal lung inflammation.

Wagner, who himself was forced to evacuate his home earlier this week, added that battling the blazes can also bring underlying heart and lung problems to the forefront.

Of course, firefighters have been battling wildfires for years now, and not all develop long-term health effects. Past studies have shown that as a group, these rescue workers experience accelerated declines in lung function. Leff notes, however, that few new studies have been performed to assess these effects on modern-day firefighters.

"Many of these data are old, when they also smoked, so there is no question that repeated exposure to both acted additively to reduce lung function," Leff explained.

However, while short-term health effects of smoke exposure of this kind are widely understood, data is currently lacking on the long-term health effects on firefighters' exposure to wildfire smoke.

Still, Vargas said he fears the very nature of wildfires could expose firefighters to much more than just smoke from burning trees and brush.

"You see a wildfire, and you might think it's just vegetation, but there are plastics, paints, metals, leads, chemicals that are burning," Vargas said.

In fact, Vargas added, laws in California and some other states make it easier for firefighters with cancer or heart-related conditions to be covered by workers' compensation under the presumption that exposures sustained during their work led to their illnesses.

Protecting Firefighters' Lungs

Solutions to better safeguard firefighters' lungs could be on the way. A newly released study presented Wednesday by the New York City Fire Department at the annual meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians in Chicago suggests that immediate treatment with steroid inhalers may help reduce lung damage in firefighters exposed to hazardous smoke.

The data come straight from research conducted after a different disaster -- the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks.

But whether such advances come soon enough to protect the lungs of today's firefighters is still unclear.

"There is technology out there, there are some masks that can help deflect or reject some of the smoke. But those masks are expensive," Vargas said. "Generally the fire services are -- we say -- 20 years behind the times.

"It takes times like these to realize on a mass scale the dangers that firefighters are receiving."

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