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Heart Disease Health Center

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Firefighter Killer: Heart Disease

Heart Disease Is Firefighters' Biggest On-Duty Death Risk
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 21, 2007 -- Heart disease kills more on-duty firefighters than anything else -- and it is definitely linked to emergency duties, a Harvard study shows.

Most people think firefighters' biggest death threats are fires and collapsing buildings. But over the last 30 years it's been shown that 45% of firefighters' on-duty deaths come from heart disease.

Firefighters, however, don't have a higher rate of heart deaths than do people in other jobs. So are these deaths really related to the heroic service firefighters provide?

Yes, find Harvard researcher Stefanos N. Kales, MD, MPH, and colleagues. Kales' team analyzed data on all firefighter deaths between 1994 and 2004, except those linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They also looked at how a representative sample of firefighters spend their time.

"What our study is showing is the majority of on-duty heart deaths in firefighters are work related and are precipitated by physical and toxic factors," Kales tells WebMD.

The researchers found that, compared with when they perform nonemergency duties:

  • Firefighters are 12 to 136 times more likely to die of heart disease when putting out a fire.
  • Firefighters are 3 to 14 times more likely to die of heart disease while responding to an alarm.
  • Firefighters are 2 to 10.5 times more likely to die of heart disease while returning from an alarm.
  • Firefighters are 3 to 7 times more likely to die of heart disease during physical training.

The findings appear in the March 22 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

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