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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Firefighters' heart attack risk rises sharply on calls

By Elizabeth Cooney, Globe Correspondent

Heart disease has long been known to be the leading cause of death among firefighters, but a new study in tomorrow's New England Journal of Medicine reports that putting out fires raises a firefighter's risk of having a heart attack up to 100 times more than doing other, non-emergency duties.

Dr. Stefanos N. Kales of Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard School of Public Healthled the study that looked at the types of tasks firefighters did -- responding to a fire, putting it out, returning from a call, training, etc. -- to see how these tasks were associated with death. They reviewed data on deaths from 1994 through 2004, excluding the 344 firefighters who died from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"This provides the strongest evidence to date that specific firefighting duties can precipitate coronary events," Kales said.

Firefighters don't have a higher risk of heart disease compared to the general population, but the sudden exertion of their work can trigger a heart attack in the same way shoveling snow can lead to a heart attack in someone else.

Firefighters may begin their careers in better shape than others, but as they grow older they may acquire risk factors, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol as well as weight gain.

"The implications of this study are clear," Dr. Linda Rosenstock and Dr. Jorn Olsen of UCLA write in an editorial. "Modifiable risk factors, whether or not they are related to occupation, should be aggressively addressed."

About 70 percent of fire departments don't have programs to promote fitness, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

"One of the issues for fire services is coming up with the funding to have medical evaluations" and fitness programs, said Rita Fahy, manager of fire databases and systems for the NFPA.

"It's the job, but the job's interaction with a person's underlying status," Kales said. "We have to make sure we are doing everything we can so risk factors are addressed sooner. Because the job is so dangerous, it needs to be career-long."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 05:00 PM
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