UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center researcher Shehnaz K. Hussain has received a $1.9 million California climate action grant to lead a study into the cancer risks facing firefighters as they battle climate-driven wildfires. The grant is funded through a partnership between the University of California and the state of California, which awarded over $80 million in research grants to help put solutions in place that directly address state climate priorities.

Hussain Shehnaz
Shehnaz Hussain

Pinpointing the danger

Hussain’s research, “Exposure Assessment, Health Monitoring, and Cancer Control in Wildland Firefighters” will examine the main carcinogens and cancer risk factors for firefighters as the number of wildfires escalates with climate change.

“California’s firefighters are a climate-vulnerable group due to their heavy burden of occupational exposures related to the increased frequency and scale of wildland fires. The fires are also burning into urban areas where there are many more chemicals and other potential carcinogens that threaten the health of firefighters,” said Hussain, who is also a professor of Public Health Sciences at UC Davis.

Cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters. Hussain said the research will identify areas where equipment, technology, protocols, education, programs and policy can be developed or amended to reduce exposures to carcinogens, mitigate cancer risks and improve early detection of cancer in California’s firefighters.

One aim of this research is to capture and test carcinogenic chemicals and other compounds found in wildfire emissions. The team will also study a large group of firefighters to identify biomarkers and occupational and behavioral cancer risk factors that could be reduced in the future. Another objective is to produce stories about California firefighters dealing with cancer. Researchers plan to evaluate the ability of this peer-to-peer storytelling to enhance best practices for cancer prevention in firefighters.

Cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters.

Hussain will lead a team of biochemical, engineering, microbiology, environmental and occupational scientists on the research initiative. The team will include co-lead Derek Urwin, assistant adjunct professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA and a career firefighter. Other members of the research team include UC Davis colleagues Sheri Belafsky, Cristina Davis, Janine LaSalle, Irva Hertz-Picciotto and Thomas Young.