Firefighters are depicted (rightfully) as heroes in media, movies, children’s stories, and more. Children learn from a small age that firefighters put themselves at risk by entering buildings unfit for any human, all to save others and keep fires from ripping through more property. The public tends to believe the greatest health risks to these men and women would be immediate — flames engulfing their bodies, buildings collapsing on top of them.

While these things certainly can occur, it is a far more devious enemy that ends up being the most insidious for firefighters: Smoke. Smoke inhalation alone accounts for 51 percent of all fire deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association, but its harmful effects don’t end when the flames are smothered out.

Not Your Grandmother’s Smoke

While smoke inhalation has been a hazard for firefighters since the inception of the occupation, the smoke they’re dealing with today is much more dangerous. In days past, the materials with which homes were furnished consisted of wood, cloth, glass, and metal. Today, there is much more synthetic material — plastics, polyesters, acrylics — that ignites and burns much more quickly than traditional materials, only to release a flurry of toxic gases into the air. Burning these materials creates a thick black smoke that holds nothing but bad news for the lungs of those trying to get rid of it.

“Every substance, when it burns, changes its chemical structure,” Timothy Rebbeck, a professor at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Harvard School of Public Health, told The Atlantic. “Particularly when you burn something that's synthetic or man-made, you're creating strange compounds that we don't know what they'll do.”

Below, see for yourself the massive difference between burning modern materials and traditional ones. The modern materials not only cause a larger amount of smoke, but flames engulf the room much quicker than if the materials had not been synthetic.

In 2012, Susan Shaw, the executive director of the Marine & Environmental Research Institute and a professor of environmental health sciences at the State University of New York in Albany, led a study in which paramedics drew blood from firefighters immediately after they responded to a fire. Their blood contained a level of perfluorinated chemicals (used as non-stick coatings) twice as high as those of the World Trade Center Responders, and they had three times the level of flame retardants in their blood as the general population.

Ironically, some flame retardants have been phased out since 2005 for causing harmful effects in fires, but researchers still aren’t sure about the health impacts of new ones.

“The chemical industry replaces the phased-out chemical but with something similar, but it has one bond difference,” Shaw told The Atlantic. “Scientists are trying to follow the market and figure out, ‘What's in it now?’ It's extremely frustrating.”

Cancer In Firefighters: An Under-The-Radar Killer

It’s well known that smoke is a carcinogen, and it’s looking like the new chemicals in modern-day smoke are exacerbating the problem. Firefighters have an increased risk of various types of cancer, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters. A casual link has yet to be proven, but an association between cancer risk and firefighting has been building for years. An analysis found firefighters at higher risk for multiple myeloma, and a possible higher risk for contracting non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate, and testicular cancers.

Other studies have backed up this link — a 2014 study in Nordic countries found a connection between firefighting and brain and colon cancer. Yet another found that firefighters increased their risk of lung cancer every time they encountered a blaze.

“The longer you’re a firefighter, the greater your chance of getting some kind of cancer,” Shaw said. “These are people who have a gladiator mentality, and they're really tough. [But] now you have a different kind of danger.”


Shaw S, Berger M, Harris J, Yun S, Wu Q, Liao C, et al. Persistent Organic Pollutants Including Polychlorinated And Polybrominated Dibenzo-p-Dioxins And Dibenzofrans In Firefighters From Northern California. Chemosphere. 2013.

LeMasters G, Genaidy A, Succop P, Deddens J, Sobeih T, Barriera-Viruet H, et al. Cancer Risk Among Firefighters: A Review And Meta-Analysis Of 32 Studies. JOEM. 2006.