Boston, MA -- Firefighters engage in a dangerous occupation, risking life-threatening burns and smoke inhalation, among other hazards. So it may surprise some that the leading cause of death on duty among U.S. firefighters is coronary heart disease (CHD). In a new, large-scale study, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) examined the link between CHD deaths and firefighting and looked at specific job duties to see which might increase the risk of dying from a coronary event. The landmark study provides the strongest link to date between CHD and emergency firefighting duties. It found that putting out fires was associated with a risk about 10 to 100 times greater than the risk of dying from non-emergency duties. The study appears in the March 22, 2007 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
"We found conclusive evidence that the risk of CHD death is significantly higher during fire suppression, responding to alarms, returning from alarms and during certain physical training activities," said Stefanos Kales, lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health at HSPH. Kales is also the medical director of Employee Health & Industrial Medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance.
Cardiovascular events, mainly due to CHD, account for 45% of deaths among firefighters on duty. Numerous earlier studies examined CHD death rates to see whether firefighters have a greater lifetime risk of heart death than the general population or compared to other occupations. Because roughly one third of firefighters and one third of the general population in developed countries die of cardiovascular disease, those studies were inconclusive. The researchers, therefore, took a different approach to assess whether specific duties could acutely trigger CHD events.
The team, led by Kales and David Christiani, senior author and professor of occupational medicine and epidemiology in the Departments of Environmental He
Contact: Todd Datz
Harvard School of Public Health