Health Beat – Early Firefighter Death Causes Sought

By Mary Jane Dittmar, Senior Associate Editor

U. of Illinois research seeks answers to firefighter early deaths
“Perhaps the biggest reason heart attacks are the number one killer of firefighters is, at least in part–and perhaps in large part–due to the fact that they’re not in the kind of physical shape that they should be in,” according to Steven Petruzzello, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Petruzzello and research partner Denise Smith, a professor at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., began studies five years ago in conjunction with the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute to determine why firefighters die early from heart attacks.

In the long-term study, male firefighters operating under conditions like those experienced in actual fires have been used to document physiological and psychological responses in drills involving dragging hoses up stairs, chopping through wood with axes, and performing other demanding tasks, most of them in the heat of controlled fires and while wearing different configurations of protective gear.

Although no solid link between the firefighter’s job and risk for heart attack has been found, test results demonstrate the high level of stress a firefighter’s body often experiences when he enters a burning building, Petruzzello says. That stress has been documented through measures of heart rate, deep-body and skin temperatures, and blood chemistry, as well as other factors; these changes are then projected over the years of a firefighter’s career and provide the researchers with data used to consider what the long-term effect of such stress would be on firefighters.

The studies so far have shown that within minutes of heading into a fire, firefighters’ heart rates go up to near maximum levels, as if the firefighters were running an all-out sprint, Petruzzello reports. He notes that the rates remain at that level for an extended time. In addition, firefighters’ bodies, weighed down with protective clothing and breathing apparatus and performing strenuous activities, are also are forced to work overtime trying to dissipate excess heat, he explains.

“Part of the problem,” Petruzzello continues, “is that the same protective gear that shields them from the fire also traps body heat generated by physical activity. The latest gear, designed to encapsulate and better protect the firefighter, keeps more heat out, but also keeps any trapped heat in. In a fire, the body’s doing everything that it normally would do to try and dissipate heat, but essentially you’ve created a situation where the body’s normal mechanisms to cool itself don’t work.”

“Firefighters need a level of physical fitness they generally are not required to maintain to deal with those spikes in physical exertion,” Petruzzello concludes. “Further research may indicate a need to change physical fitness requirements, on-scene procedures, fire department staffing levels, or the design or use of protective gear.”

Additional information is available from Craig Chamberlain, education editor, at (217) 333-2894, e-mail:

Proposed NIOSH Move Within CDC Raises Concerns
Under a proposed restructuring within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) would become part of a mid-level “coordinating center” along with other CDC programs, effective October 1. The NIOSH director will no longer report directly to CDC Director Julie L. Gerberding.

When NIOSH was created in 1970, the legislative mandate was that the agency be insulated from politics and that its director report directly to the head of the CDC.

A majority of occupational health and safety organizations in the country are protesting the move, including the four living former NIOSH directors and the assistant secretaries for labor and health from Republican and Democratic administrations. The former NIOSH directors wrote in a letter to Tommy G. Thompson, Health and Human Services secretary: “To downgrade NIOSH and blur its mission by combining key functions with other CDC programs will erode its independence and visibility and weaken the scientific contribution that has long benefited American workers and employers.”

An online network of occupational health professionals said in a letter to CDC Director Dr. Gerberding, “The NIOSH move is particularly troublesome given the serious erosion of worker safety and health protection under the Bush administration through repeal of the ergonomics standard and withdrawal of standards to prevent TB in the workplace.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the CDC, reportedly said in an interview that he would not go along with the change proposal and would hold a hearing on the matter before October. “Change at CDC Draws Protest,” Rick Weiss,, Aug. 31, 2004, A19

September: National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month
The month of September is National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. The most common cancer among men in the United States, after skin cancer, prostate cancer has also been considered a high-risk cancer for firefighters. Fortunately, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), scientists have made tremendous progress in recent years identifying specific ways that diet and exercise can influence the risk of developing prostate cancer.

The AICR is offering the free brochure “Reducing Your Risk of Prostate Cancer.” It outlines simple steps for helping to prevent prostate cancer, up-to-date information related to diet and physical activity, and frequently asked questions about prostate cancer risk factors, genetic disposition, symptoms, and screening. You can download the brochure at, or call (800) 843-8114, ext 459.

Clandestine Methamphetamine Labs Threaten First Responders, says DHS

Clandestine methamphetamine production labs are operating in the vehicles, garages, apartments, hotels, homes, storage facilities, and vacant buildings of rural, suburban, and urban America, frequently placing many emergency responders and citizens in the line of immediate danger, warns the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). These labs can explode because of the volatile chemicals used in the production process, and the chemicals’ toxicity can contaminate the neighborhood.

According to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, the drug can seep through cracks in chemical-protection suits and burn the skin of haz-mat personnel. Last year, a “meth lab” explosion seared the lungs of a volunteer firefighter, diminishing his lung capacity by 85 percent. INFOGRAM, Department of Homeland Security, Sept. 16, 2004.

Do you have a health or safety tip or story to share? Is there an issue you’d like to see covered? Contact or call (973) 251-5052.

Mary Jane Dittmar is senior associate editor of Fire Engineering, fireEMS, and Before joining the magazine in 1991, she served as editor of a trade magazine in the health/nutrition market and held various positions in the educational and medical advertising fields. She has a bachelor’s degree in English/journalism and a master’s degree in communication arts.

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