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Research funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and published in the Circulation journal has unearthed concerning evidence that working in high temperatures for extended periods of time could be closely linked to an elevated risk of heart attack. The research has significant implications for firefighters, whether in training or on active duty, and potentially for many thousands of others working in heat-intensive fields.
According to the Edinburgh University-based researchers the link between heat exposure and heart attacks may now be sufficient to explain why heart disease is the leading cause of death amongst on-duty firefighters.
Researchers looked at a test sample of 19 randomly selected, healthy, non-smoking firefighters who were exposed to extreme heat while conducting mock exercises including a rescue from a 2-storey building whilst wearing heart monitors. They discovered that the firefighters’ core body temperatures remained high even 3-4 hours after the exercise had ended, and that their blood became significantly stickier; making it 66% more likely to form potentially harmful clots inside the body. What’s more, when the firefighters were given medication to relax their blood vessels in response to this, it had little effect.
Researchers hypothesised that this elevated clotting risk arose in connection to a combination of sweating-induced fluid loss and the body’s inflammatory response to fire heat, which caused the blood to become increasingly concentrated. Additional findings included the observation of minor fire heat damage to the heart muscles themselves.
With greater awareness of the coronary heart risks linked with heat exposure, it’s possible that GPs can exercise greater vigilance towards the early warning signs of heart trouble in patients who may be at higher-than-normal risk, such as firefighters. This could in turn have an impact on the annual volume of GP negligence or misdiagnosis claims relating to heart attack victims, acting to reduce medical negligence claims as a whole.
Commenting on the study BHF Senior Clinical Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh Professor Nick Mills issued the following statement to the BBC:
“Studies from the USA have shown that nearly half of all firefighters who die on duty are killed by heart disease. Our study has shown a direct link between the heat and physical activity levels encountered by firefighters during the course of their duties and their risk of suffering a heart attack.”
BHF Associate Medical Director Dr Mike Knapton also issued the following statement:
“It’s essential that firefighters are aware of this risk and take simple steps such as taking time to cool down and rehydrate after tackling a blaze…It’s also important for them to be aware of the early warning signs of a heart attack so that, if the worst should happen, they can receive medical attention as soon as possible…Most of us will never experience the scorching heat of a blazing inferno, but it’s still good general health advice to drink plenty of fluid and take breaks if you’re working up a sweat in high temperatures.”
The Fire Brigades Union has referred to the findings as “very disturbing”, and reiterated the need to take action against heat-induced heart attacks and to recognise the early signs of heart disease. Doing so in light of the new findings could work to reduce the missed opportunities and the number of people forced to make undiagnosed heart attack claims, whether they work as a firefighter or in other heat-intensive fields.