New pilot study in Northern Va. will screen firefighters for cancer risks

Their work is already dangerous — but firefighters also face an increased risk of certain types of cancer. Now, a Northern Virginia hospital is preparing to launch a new pilot program aiming to increase early cancer screening for firefighters in the D.C. area.

The pilot study will be run by Inova’s Saville Cancer Screening and Prevention Center and Inova Occupational Health.

Dr. Rebecca Kaltman, executive director of the Saville Center, said the study will include intensive screening, including scans, as well as some more novel tools, such as “liquid biopsies,” which are blood tests that “can detect cancer on the earlier side,” she told WTOP.

When it is up and running, the study will seek to enroll firefighters from across the D.C. area who are over 35 years or who have more than 10 years of service as a firefighters. The study will follow them for the next three years.

“We are hoping that by following individuals a little bit more closely than they necessarily would be in the general population, doing some more novel types of screening, we might be able to improve early detection in firefighters,” Kaltman said.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of medical experts, provides cancer-screening guidelines for the general population, based on age and other risk factors.

“But there’s no specific screening regiment that’s been proven to be beneficial in the firefighting community,” Kaltman said.

Dr. Jeff Burgess, a professor at the University of Arizona’s Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, researches cancer risks for firefighters.

He said firefighters are at an increased risk for a number of different cancers, a finding that was “firmly established” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization.

Last summer, in fact, firefighting was listed as a “Group 1” carcinogen, which means there is a sufficient evidence that occupational exposure as a firefighter causes cancer.

Burgess said firefighters are exposed to a number of chemicals during their work, including a number of known human carcinogens, such as benzene, formaldehyde and asbestos.

“So when they’re exposed to these things on their job, it gets into their body, it causes cellular changes and puts them in increased risk for cancer,” he said.

Another factor? Late-night and overnight shift work is known to increase the risk of cancer, as well.

In general, Kaltman said early screening is very important. Much of the time, cancer doesn’t present until it is in later stages.

There are some effective screenings, such as colonoscopies, and mammography to detect breast cancer.

“But there are hundreds of cancers that we don’t have adequate screening tools for.”

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at, part of Government Executive Media Group.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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