Firefighters may be at an increased risk of urological cancers, study finds

Photo of Jooyeon Hwang pictured in front of greenery background outdoors.
Jooyeon Hwang, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, finds firefighters may be at an increased risk of urological cancers in a new study.

Biomarkers in the urine of firefighters after battling a blaze suggest an increased risk of developing urological cancers, according to new research led by UTHealth Houston.  

The study, "Urine proteome profile of firefighters with exposure to emergency fire-induced smoke: A pilot study to identify potential carcinogenic effects" was published in Science of The Total Environment

In collaboration with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, researchers led by first author Jooyeon Hwang, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, found key biological molecules linked to kidney, bladder, and prostate cancers in the urinary protein profiles of Oklahoma firefighters after they were exposed to smoke in emergency fires. This study marks the first record of using urine testing to analyze the effects of fire smoke exposure on firefighters. 

"This initiative aims to significantly improve early detection and ongoing health monitoring, enhancing the overall management of firefighter health,” said Hwang. 

Hwang and her team collected urine samples of 10 firefighters before and after exposure to fire smoke.  
Researchers compared the protein markers of the samples with urine panels from earlier studies. This analysis revealed that of the 16 proteins identified in urine after firefighters in the study were exposed to smoke, seven were linked with known cancer biomarkers. 

This research sheds critical light on firefighters' occupational health risks and the need for thorough health assessments and pre-cancer screenings. According to the article’s recommendations, “integrating cancer screening into current physical and medical exams for both new recruits and incumbent firefighters” should be initiated to detect early cases for cancer.  
Hwang and her team plan to expand this testing method to more firefighters across Texas and Oklahoma to gain more data on the effects of fire smoke. In upcoming trials, they will increase testing intervals to analyze the lasting impact of exposure to fire smoke and measure any progression. 
Hwang serves as the deputy director of the Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. 

Additional researchers for the paper included Nagib Ahsan, PhD, from the University of Oklahoma; Chao Xu, PhD, from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center; and Robert Agnew, PhD, from Oklahoma State University. 

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