Study Finds Lung Damage in Firefighters Years After a Major Wildfire

Study Finds Lung Damage in Firefighters Years After a Major Wildfire
A photo taken of flames engulfing the trees along a highway near Fort McMurray, Alberta, on May 6, 2016. (Photo: Cole Burston, Getty Images)

Recent research from Canada seems to show that wildfires can continue to hurt the lungs of firefighters for years after they’ve burnt out. The study found that first responders who combated the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016 were more likely to experience chronic lung ailments like asthma in the years after than the general public, while many also had visible signs of long-term lung damage.

The Fort McMurray wildfire is thought to have begun on May 1, 2016, in Alberta, Canada. Within days, the fire spread out of control and reached the town of Fort McMurray, prompting the evacuation of nearly 90,000 people. By the time the fire was finally extinguished in late August, it had covered 1.5 million acres of land and destroyed over 3,000 buildings, including homes (two deaths from a car crash also occurred during the evacuation). The costs of the fire are estimated to have run almost $US8 ($11) billion in U.S. dollars, making it the single costliest environmental disaster in Canada’s history (it’s suspected the fire was started by humans).

Researchers at the University of Alberta have been tracking the health of the many firefighters who responded to the wildfire. Their latest study, published in June in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, looked at the lung-related outcomes of 1,234 firefighters, based on their overall medical records as well as follow-up testing of randomly selected individuals with no previously diagnosed lung disease.

Compared to people similarly matched in age, location, and other factors, the McMurray firefighters were five times more likely to be newly diagnosed with asthma in the following three years after the fire, the researchers found. Of the firefighters who underwent testing, 20% had less responsive lungs and noticeable thickening of the bronchial walls (bronchi are the airways that lead straight to the lungs), both signs of asthma or other respiratory conditions. And it was the firefighters with the most reported exposure to the fire, often the very first to arrive, who seemed to be the worst off.

“Those who were dealing with burning organic matter were exposed to a barrage of small particles in the smoke, and the ones with the highest exposure have long-term consequences,” said lead author Nicola Cherry, an occupational health epidemiologist and researcher, in a statement.

Though this research only concerns the firefighters who took on the McMurray wildfire, other studies have pointed to similar increased risks of lung and even heart damage among those who have fought wildfires, including a higher risk of lung cancer and heart-related death years later. And with wildfires in both the U.S. and Canada becoming more common and fiercer over time, it’s likely that the health impacts of wildland firefighting will only intensify.

There may be ways to mitigate the pulmonary harms caused by these disasters. The researchers note that many of the McMurray firefighters didn’t have access to specialised gear that could have lessened their exposure to the smoke’s pollutants. Cherry and her team are also researching how they can make firefighting even safer, including through the use of more masks or washing the skin post-fire, as well as modified methods of firefighting, such as shorter rotations of different crews to lessen exposure time.