Researchers Studying Stress, Cancer Risk and Reproductive Toxicity in Women Firefighters

Jan 26, 2021

TUCSON, Ariz. — Researchers at the University of Arizona Health Sciences are undertaking a study to better understand the potential enviromental and occupational health risks specific to women in the fire service.

Lily Pesqueira is a captain and 20-year veteran of the Tucson Fire Department.Funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the study will examine how being a firefighter affects women’s stress levels, as well as their risk of cancer and reproductive toxicity, or adverse reproductive health outcomes.

“More and more women are joining the fire service,” said Jefferey L. Burgess, MD, MPH, professor and associate dean for research at the UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and a UArizona Cancer Center research member. “It’s imperative for us to understand the occupational risks that may be unique to these women and how we can help make their jobs safer in the future.”

The three-year study will recruit 200 women – 100 incumbent firefighters and 100 new recruits – at departments around the United States, including locally at the Tucson Fire Department. Comparing incumbent firefighters with new recruits will help identify potential differences in reported stress and markers in blood associated with increased cancer risk.

The Tucson Fire Department is one of several fire departments around the United States participating in the study, which is comparing incumbent firefighters with new recruits to help identify potential differences in reported stress and markers in blood associated with increased cancer risk.“We know very little about the health of women firefighters because they are a minority in the fire service,” said Leslie V. Farland, ScD, whose research will focus on the reproductive health of the women participating in the study.

According to Dr. Farland, prior research suggests that women firefighters may be at increased risk of miscarriage and preterm birth compared with the general population. She is particularly interested in measuring levels of anti-Mullerian hormone (AMH), a hormone that can be used to assess ovarian reserve, or the number and quality of a woman’s egg supply, which is a measure of reproductive health.

AMH levels naturally decrease as women age, and preliminary research has suggested that the number of years a woman spends working in the fire service may influence her AMH levels to a higher extent than would be expected by age.

Jefferey L. Burgess, MD, MPH, is a professor and associate dean for research at the UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and a UArizona Cancer Center research member.“I'm excited about the incorporation of AMH as a biomarker of ovarian reserve,” Dr. Farland said. “It has been used clinically for about a decade to predict ovarian response to infertility treatment. There is research that suggests AMH is associated with time of menopause. There has also been some evidence of an association between AMH levels with some types of cancer that, but that is a new area of investigation.”

Along with tracking new recruits through their first 18 months of becoming a firefighter, the study includes a pilot intervention to explore potential benefits for reducing stress. A “virtual kitchen table” will be developed to help foster camaraderie and communication between women firefighters in the workplace.

“Throughout my career, it has been encouraging to see an increased emphasis on cancer and mental health,” said Lily Pesqueira, a captain and 20-year veteran of the Tucson Fire Department. “The knowledge that has come forward has made a huge impact on the fire service as a whole. I believe this latest study will help women, especially younger women just beginning their careers, to know that they will be safer than ever before.”

Captain Lily Pesqueira is among those training the latest Tucson Fire Department recruiting class. The new class includes three females participating in a study led by the University of Arizona Health Sciences to better understand the potential environmental and occupational health risks specific to women in the fire service.

The Tucson Fire Department welcomed a new class of 36 recruits in January. Among the group are three women who will be offered the opportunity to participate in the voluntary study as part of the new research grant and Dr. Burgess’ ongoing collaboration with the department.

Dr. Burgess previously collaborated with the UArizona College of Engineering to examine how to reduce cancer risk among firefighters by evaluating exposure to carcinogens throughout the work shift, measuring biomarkers of carcinogenic effect and testing the effectiveness of interventions to reduce carcinogen exposure. He has established a strong partnership with the Tucson Fire Department and other fire departments to advance research that may make a career in the fire service safer. 

“Firefighters put their lives on the line for us every day,” Dr. Burgess said. “It's really important for those of us in academia to do research in partnership with the fire service to help provide them the answers they need to allow them to do their own job more safely.”

The study is funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (EMW-2019-FP-00526).

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NOTE: Photos available here: https://arizona.box.com/s/0hmoucl3qs5x2jujt7sqbmx545ey25o1

About the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health
Established in 2000, the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona Health Sciences is the first nationally accredited college of public health in the Southwest. Today the college remains the only accredited college of public health in the state of Arizona, with campuses in Tucson and Phoenix. The college enrolls more than 1,100 students per year across degree programs at the bachelor's degree, master's degree and doctoral levels. Through research, education and community engagement, the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health continues to find solutions to public health problems in Arizona, the Southwest and globally. For more information: publichealth.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram).

About the University of Arizona Cancer Center
The University of Arizona Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center with headquarters in Arizona. The UArizona Cancer Center is supported by NCI Cancer Center Support Grant No. CA023074. With its primary location at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Cancer Center has more than a dozen research and education offices throughout the state, with more than 300 physicians and scientists working together to prevent and cure cancer. For more information: cancercenter.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube).

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences
The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. UArizona Health Sciences includes the Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona, the greater Southwest and around the world to provide next-generation education, research and outreach. A major economic engine, Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 4,000 students and 900 faculty members, and garners $200 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).

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