WASHINGTON, D.C. - Following her repeated calls for a study on firefighters' risk of cancer, Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) today applauded the National Institute for Occupational Safety (NIOSH) for launching an International Association of Fire Fighters initiative to implement a nationwide Hazardous Substance Training Program.
"Firefighters and their families already understand the hazards of being on the job, whether it is rushing into a burning building or responding to a chemical spill. I believe that they have the right to know the potential health hazards of simply reporting for duty," said Senator Mikulski. "That is why this research is so important - it could potentially save lives."
Last month, Senator Mikulski called on John Howard, NIOSH director, to commence a study on the risk of cancer among firefighters. She sent a similar request to Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt in January 2006, after a Johns Hopkins University study focused on Anne Arundel County firefighters yielded inconclusive results.
Senator Mikulski received the following response from NIOSH detailing steps the Institute will take to address this problem:
Dear Senator Mikulski,
I am responding to your letter to Dr. John Howard, Director, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, regarding the potential risk of cancer among fire fighters.
I am pleased to inform you that NIOSH is funding an International Association of Fire Fighters initiative to implement a nationwide Hazardous Substance Training Program. This program will address first responders' exposure to toxic materials that potentially increase their long-term risk for certain types of cancer and heart disease. NIOSH also has many research activities devoted to addressing the different health hazards to which firefighters may be exposed. These include the following:
1. Testing and certifying self-contained breathing apparatus for use by emergency responders in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear environments.
2. A study of respiratory health effects among wildland firefighters.
3. A health hazard evaluation investigating hydrogen cyanide poisoning among Providence, Rhode Island, firefighters.
4. An investigation of on-duty firefighter fatalities.
The latter program was funded by Congress in 1998 to address the estimated 100 firefighters who are killed each year while on duty. Over 324 investigations have been conducted involving fatal traumatic injuries or sudden cardiac death.
In addition, NIOSH has reviewed the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health report authored by Dr. Jonathan Samet. One of the studies cited regarding polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) was recently updated by NIOSH. There was confirmation of an excess of brain cancer deaths was quite small.
NIOSH is in the process of prioritizing research needs for firefighter safety and health. The Institute and other stakeholders will develop research agendas that are responsive to broadly perceived needs to guide and coordinate research nationally and systematically address issues that are most pressing to the worker and the nation. As part of this effort, NIOSH is seeking input from stakeholders to ensure the NIOSH firefighter research program is meeting the needs of the stakeholders to identify ways in which we might improve the safety and health of fire fighters across the United States. On March 22, 2006, in Washington, D.C., NIOSH conducted a stakeholders meeting. Input obtained at this meeting included concern regarding heart disease, cancer and wellness programs. NIOSH will be assessing this information along with the scientific literature to determine the most appropriate research studies to improve firefighter safety, health and well-being.
Thank you for your strong interest and concern for firefighter health and safety. We certainly share your concern and will continue to conduct important, impact-focused research to protect the lives of American firefighters.
Julie Louise Gerberding, M.D., M.P. H.
The opinions expressed in this article represent the views of Senator Barbara Mikulski, or the specific person or organization that is quoted. Senator Mikulski is one of two federal senators for the state of Maryland. She is classified as a Class III Senator. Senators are elected to six-year terms, and every two years the members of one class-approximately one-third of the Senators-face election or reelection. Terms for Senators in Class I expire in 2007, Class II in 2009, and Class III in 2011.
Ms. Mikulski's website is located at http://mikulski.senate.gov/. Her office can be reached at (202) 224-4654. More biographical info on Ms. Mikulski can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Mikulski.