New ABOR Regents’ Research Grant seeks to reduce cancer risk in Arizona’s firefighters; Additional grants address groundwater supply, forest health

Photo of a fire truck heading down a road with mountains and smoke in the distance

New ABOR Regents’ Research Grant seeks to reduce cancer risk in Arizona’s firefighters; Additional grants address groundwater supply, forest health

November 18, 2022

Thanks to a new $4 million grant from the Arizona Board of Regents, the statewide firefighting community will have new hope in the battle against occupational-related cancer, a leading cause of death among firefighters1.

Through a recently approved Regents’ Research Grant, the University of Arizona will lead a study, in partnership with the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association and Arizona State University, to target enrolling 1,500 Arizona firefighters to test the effectiveness of whether blood or plasma donations lower cancer-causing “forever chemicals” (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS) levels. Firefighters come in contact with PFAS in many ways, including burning household items, potential contamination from personal protective equipment and firefighter foam, which is used to put out burning liquids.

Earlier this year, occupational exposure as a firefighter was classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, changing from the previous classification as possibly carcinogenic. The reclassification came after many new studies, including several led by the University of Arizona Health Sciences. 

“Firefighters face unimaginable risks to save our loved ones, our homes and our communities and cancer is unfortunately one of those risks,” said ABOR Chair Lyndel Manson. “This study will help us figure out if there are ways to reduce that risk. The board is tremendously grateful for the partnership and research between the universities and firefighters to find possible solutions.”

The cancer risk is one Goodyear Fire Department Firefighter Gilbert Aguirre knows too well. He became a full-time firefighter in southeastern Arizona when he was just 20 years old. When he was 35 years old, Aguirre was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia – news that felt like a punch in the face to this former boxer.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life after receiving that diagnosis … was my wife and I sitting down and talking to my three boys and telling them I had cancer,” said Aguirre, whose boys were 14, 10 and 5 years old at the time. “It’s an occupational cancer. All of the exposures that we encounter in our career are the cause of my cancer.”

Firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population. “This grant and the research it will fund are beacons of hope for our firefighters,” said Tom Shannon, Arizona Fire Chiefs Association President and Scottsdale Fire Department Chief. “Our great hope is that it will improve life outcomes for our firefighters.”

The fire chiefs association also will partner with the Professional Firefighters of Arizona to recruit and include fire departments and firefighters from throughout the state in both fire districts and municipalities in this research.

“One of this study’s goals is to decrease PFAS levels in firefighters – which we have found to be higher than in the general population. Results from a previous study in Australia are encouraging as PFAS levels decreased through blood and plasma donations. We’re expecting similar results here and we will also be studying whether the reduced levels can also decrease disease risks associated with PFAS – research which has not been done before and which we hope will ultimately save more lives among our fire first responders,” said Dr. Jeff Burgess, University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health professor and principal investigator for the project.

  1. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, January 8). Retrieved November 14, 2022, from

That’s the hope of Aguirre as well for future generations of firefighters; his sons are already expressing interest in becoming firefighters like their dad. “For me, it’s really important that researchers like Dr. Burgess find ways to keep my sons and all future firefighters safe.” Dr. Burgess is collaborating on the study with co-principal investigators Dr. Melissa Furlong, UArizona Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health assistant professor, and Dr. Floris Wardenaar, ASU College of Health Solutions assistant professor.

Regents’ Research Grants were established to address and deliver solutions to critical issues facing the state of Arizona and its citizens. The grants are funded by Technology and Research Initiative Funds, established through Prop. 301 and utilizing sales tax revenues. TRIF funds vital research in public health, water, national security systems, workforce development and other key areas at Arizona’s public universities. 

The fiscal year 2023 Regents’ Research Grants also fund research partnerships between the universities and the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management and the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

“These grants are designed to accomplish research to benefit the people of Arizona, to give them a return on investment from their hard-earned tax dollars. This round of grants addresses critical issues that are affecting Arizonans today from preserving our state’s forests to cooling desert cities in an era of rising temperatures. I appreciate the strong collaboration between our state agencies and fire partners and look forward to research results that improve quality of life for Arizonans,” said Regent Fred DuVal.

Following are the additional fiscal year 2023 Regents’ Research Grants:

Enhancing Arizona’s groundwater supply: Arizona is in its 27th year of a long-term drought, making groundwater a precious commodity. Researchers from UArizona, ASU and NAU in partnership with the Arizona Department of Water Resources and localities will examine water runoff, suitable locations to recharge this water into groundwater, and where runoff may be directed in the future. The board approved $3.7 million over three years.

Smart tree watering to make urban environments more livable: As Arizona’s climate changes, more urban areas are planning to provide heat relief by increasing tree canopy. In partnership with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, researchers from UArizona and ASU will compare standard tree watering practices with new techniques that are expected to result in water savings. The board approved $750,000 over two years.

Mitigating wildfire risk: Urban areas are increasingly at risk as wildfires threaten Arizona, but land managers often lack scalable data to effectively plan in managing fires and the fuels that feed them. Researchers from NAU and UArizona will work with the U.S. Geological Survey to apply a new 3D mapping and modeling framework for fuels reduction, wildfire mitigation and ecosystem restoration. The board approved $900,000 over three years.

Insect monitoring to save forests from infestations: During the summer of 2021 alone, 528,108 acres of Arizona forest died from bark-beetles - a 551 percent increase in mortality from the beetles compared to the previous year. Researchers at NAU working with Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management are developing a mobile woodboring insect monitoring system for forest managers and the public. The board approved $800,000 over three years.

Fighting forest-devastating bark beetles: Trees in Arizona are increasingly under attack by bark beetles that can destroy forests, especially in drought-stricken areas. Researchers from NAU working with Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management will develop a hand-held acoustic holography system that measures sound waves to locate bark beetles and investigate the overall health of trees. The board approved $600,000 over three years.

First of its kind system to measure tree-water stress: Researchers from NAU in partnership with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management are developing a system to monitor tree water stress across Arizona, providing forest managers an early warning system to respond to forest stress. The board approved $1.2 million over three years.

Interview/photo opportunities: 

Members of the media may contact Sarah Harper or Julie Newberg to schedule interviews with regents/firefighters. Photos may be accessed here.  

Sarah Harper, 602-229-2542, 602-402-1341 |
Julie Newberg, 602-229-2534 |