Although firefighters have been shown in some studies to suffer chronic respiratory morbidity from their occupational exposures, an increased risk for dying from non-malignant respiratory diseases has not been documented in any previous retrospective cohort mortality study. In order to assess the possibility that an unusually strong "healthy worker effect" among firefighters might mask this increased risk, a mortality analysis of firefighters was carried out in three cities in relation to the United States population and also to a comparison cohort of police officers. The firefighters were employed between 1945 and 1980 and experienced 886 deaths by 1 January 1984; compared with the United States population they had a significantly reduced risk of dying from all causes (SMR = 82, 95% confidence interval, 77-87), and from non-malignant circulatory diseases (SMR = 81, 95% confidence interval 73-89), but no significant difference in risk of non-malignant respiratory diseases (SMR = 88, 95% confidence interval 66-117). Compared with police, the firefighters experienced a trend toward improved mortality outcomes for all causes investigated (SMR = 82), but they had an excess of deaths from non-malignant respiratory diseases (SMR = 141). The results indicate that firefighters are probably at increased risk for dying from non-malignant respiratory diseases; this increased risk may have been missed in previous studies because of the limitations of using a general reference population.
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