$3.8 million grant awarded for firefighter health study in wildland-urban fire zones

April 2, 2024

Grant supports health research for firefighters in wildland-urban interfaces

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has awarded a $3.8 million grant to researchers at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

This funding aims to explore the health effects and exposure risks firefighters face in wildland-urban interfaces, where wildfires increasingly occur.

The study, led by Jeff Burgess, MD, MS, MPH, will collaborate closely with fire departments and firefighters to assess and improve health outcomes through various interventions.

Wildland-urban interfaces, zones where developed and undeveloped lands meet, pose unique challenges due to the complex smoke produced from burning vegetation, structures, and vehicles.

This environment increases the potential toxicity to firefighters, who already face heightened health risks, including cancer.

The study titled “Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Exposures, Effects, and Interventions: A Collaborative Research-to-Action Partnership with Firefighters,” seeks to address these issues through community-engaged research and innovative health solutions.

Exploring exposure risks and health impacts

Jeff Burgess emphasized the importance of understanding firefighter exposures in these zones: “With more firefighters battling fires in the wildland-urban interface due to new construction and climate change, we need to better understand their exposures and health effects so we can reduce risk as much as possible and keep our firefighters healthy.”

The study will employ silicone wristbands, urinalysis, and DNA analysis to measure chemical exposures and their effects, evaluating interventions like improved personal protective equipment and decontamination practices.

The increasing frequency of wildfires, fueled by climate change, underscores the urgency of this research.

The United States has seen an average of 70,685 wildfires annually since 2000, burning an average of 7.1 million acres each year.

Prior research identified prolonged exposure and insufficient protective equipment among firefighters at wildland-urban interfaces, highlighting a significant gap in understanding and addressing these risks.

Collaborative efforts for firefighter safety

The research team will collaborate with the Los Angeles County Fire Department and Orange County Fire Authority, involving firefighters enrolled in the Fire Fighter Cancer Cohort Study.

This partnership reflects a community-engaged approach, leveraging the knowledge and trust of firefighters to identify, test, and implement effective interventions.

Iman Hakim, dean of the UArizona Zuckerman College of Public Health, lauded Burgess’s contributions: “Dr. Burgess’ innovation and leadership in health research for firefighters has benefitted firefighters all over the world.”

She highlighted the study’s potential to guide interventions that enhance firefighter safety and improve health outcomes, showcasing the impact of public health research in action.

The study involves multiple university and firefighter partners, demonstrating a collaborative effort to address the health challenges faced by firefighters at the forefront of protecting communities from wildfires.

This research is poised to provide valuable insights into reducing exposure risks and supporting the well-being of firefighters who serve in increasingly hazardous conditions.

FSJA Comment

The $3.8 million grant awarded for studying the health impacts of wildland-urban interface fires on firefighters represents a critical step towards safeguarding those who protect our communities from the ravages of wildfires.

This research underscores the intricate relationship between environmental health and public safety, highlighting the need for innovative solutions to mitigate risks faced by firefighters in these challenging environments.

By focusing on direct measures of exposure and evaluating practical interventions, this study aims to enhance the health outcomes of firefighters, reflecting the broader goal of public health to prevent harm and promote well-being.

Moreover, the collaborative approach of this research, involving firefighters in the development and testing of interventions, ensures that the solutions are not only scientifically sound but also practical and implementable in the field.

This initiative serves as a model for how community-engaged research can address pressing health concerns, providing actionable data that benefits not only the firefighters but also the communities they serve.

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