Sylvester Launches Research Partnership with South Florida Fire Rescue Departments
Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center is leading a new research partnership with South Florida Fire Rescue Departments to understand why firefighters face a high risk of cancer and find ways to improve their health and safety.
“Like firefighters and police, doctors are public servants who are dedicated to serving our community,” said Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., Director of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, at an August 27 press conference at Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Station 2 in northwest Miami. “As an academic cancer center, we want to learn about the cancer-promoting risks that firefighters face so we can implement life-saving solutions.”
A team of researchers and clinicians at Sylvester is leading the collaborative partnership with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Departments in an initiative supported by nearly $1 million in funding from the state of Florida.
“After learning about the alarming incidence of cancer in these brave men and women, I made funding for this study a priority,” said State Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, chair of the House Government Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, at the kick-off event. She was joined by State Rep. Frank Artiles, who thanked the Legislature and governor for supporting the research project to study cancer disparities among firefighters. Also in attendance was Rep. Cynthia Stafford, who represents District 109, where Fire Rescue Station 2 is located.
Many fires generate toxic combustion products that are known or suspected carcinogens. Although a recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that firefighters may be at a higher risk of digestive, oral, respiratory, and urinary system cancers, the Sylvester-led project will be the first study focused on defining risk and learning how to reduce the risk.
Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., Associate Director of Sylvester and Director of the Center’s Jay Weiss Institute for Health Equity, will lead the study to gather data about workplace procedures and exposures. She has been a leader in collaborating with community partners, leading Sylvester’s outreach efforts throughout South Florida.
“Our goal is to learn exactly where the increased exposure to carcinogens takes place and then implement proven measures to reduce that risk,” she said. “We will be training firefighters as researchers who will help us collect the data and work with us on the education and early detection aspects of this interdisciplinary project.”
The partnership with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and Palm Beach County Fire Rescue aims to enroll 90 percent of firefighters in the two counties, as many as 1,000 men and women. The researchers will begin with a number of specific tasks, including providing firefighters with access to screenings for early detection, such as the Fecal Immunologic Test for early signs of colorectal cancer and Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) screening for early detection of cervical cancer.
Sylvester researchers will also identify exposures that account for the increased cancer risk; develop new technology to measure exposure in the field; link firefighters to the Florida Cancer Data System, a state-supported cancer data registry managed at Sylvester, for improved monitoring; and develop an education campaign to inform firefighters about prevention and early detection.
“We are excited about this new endeavor to improve firefighter health and safety,” said Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Dave Downey. “We have already started educating new firefighters so they can recognize the early signs of cancer.”
The Miller School’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is collaborating to devise technology to monitor firefighters’ exposure to chemicals and substances at fire locations, and release of substances from the fire equipment and gear in the station and in the trucks. A team of graduate students from the University’s School of Communications will develop and test computer software and mobile applications to be used by the firefighters to monitor and report adverse exposures. Another group will develop a multi-media campaign to educate firefighters about cancer risks and exposures.
“We look forward to partnering with the researchers and doctors at Sylvester to learn more about the risks our firefighters face, and to reduce those factors,” said Jeffrey P. Collins, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Administrator. “We will fix this problem and we will not rest until the job is done.”
At the press conference, Luis Suarez, a Palm Beach County firefighter, told the story of his own struggle with cancer. Two years ago, the 35-year-old Suarez was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Surgeons removed two malignant polyps and he received follow-up chemotherapy.
“As a cancer survivor, I look forward to hitting that five-year mark for myself and my family,” he said. “I also hope we can help my brothers and sisters in our fire service so they don’t have to go through a similar cancer journey.”