Jefferey L. Burgess, MD, MPH, a professor in the Community, Environment and Policy department at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, received his third Fulbright Scholar Award to support his ongoing research on firefighter health and cancer risks, this time among wildland firefighters in Australia.
With his previous Fulbright Awards, he conducted firefighter health risk studies in the European Union in 2016 and Japan in 2010.
“It's an honor to receive the award.” Dr. Burgess said. “The proposed research builds on work that we've been doing in the U.S. in collaboration with wildland firefighters. It gives us a chance now to include Australian firefighters in the discussion of research results and sharing of best practices to reduce hazardous exposures and cancer risks.”
In July, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified occupational exposures as a firefighter as carcinogenic. In June, The Lancet Oncology published a paper on the topic co-authored by Dr. Burgess.
“When things burn, they produce a number of cancer-causing chemicals, such as benzene and formaldehyde,” Dr. Burgess said. “There are a huge number of chemicals released from ‘fireground’ exposure – an area where firefighting operations are carried out, whether the blaze is in a structure or in the wild.”
“Firefighters can be exposed from breathing in smoke when they are not wearing their self-contained breathing apparatus, such as before they go into a fire. They can be exposed through their skin, as well,” he added. “We're continuing to do collaborative work with the fire services to figure out how to reduce their exposures and their cancer risks.”
Dr. Burgess first got involved in research with firefighters in the early 1990s while earning a master’s degree in toxicology and industrial hygiene at UArizona. His thesis project was on how well firefighter respirators protect them from smoke exposure. When he returned to UArizona for a faculty position in 1997, he continued his work.
“Whatever concerns they had, be it respiratory protection, injuries or heat exposure, we would work together to provide information to answer their questions.” Dr. Burgess said. “Then, about seven years ago, we got a grant to work with the Tucson Fire Department to figure out what exposures were leading to increased cancer rates in firefighters and what we could do about it.”
The result was the Fire Fighter Cancer Cohort Study, an ongoing study with fire service partners in more than a dozen states.
Since 2020, Dr. Burgess has received federal funding to study female firefighter health risks, "forever" chemicals such as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, and how they affect firefighters, and cancer risks for U.S. wildlands firefighters, who often work at the wildland-urban interface, or WUI.
When Dr. Burgess was putting together the U.S. wildlands grant application, his thoughts returned to Australia, where he went on his first sabbatical in 2003. Massive bushfires swept the country in 2019-20 and again in 2021, prompting him to apply for the Fulbright award.
To carry out his Fulbright research, Dr. Burgess will be based in Melbourne for three months in early 2023. He’ll also travel to meet with fire service organizations in different Australian states and territories to see how they operate and what questions their firefighters may have about their health. One of his goals is to establish a bush/wildland/WUI firefighter health research collaborative between the U.S. and Australia to share exposure reduction best practices and identify workplace interventions for further study.
The Fulbright Program was created in 1946 with funding from Congress to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to improve mutual understanding among people of the U.S. and other countries, . Through it, more than 400,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists and professionals have been afforded the opportunity to study, teach, exchange ideas, conduct research and contribute to solutions to important international challenges. Visit the Office of Research, Innovation and Impact website for more information on Fulbright opportunities at UArizona.