Repeat measures of DNA methylation in an inception cohort of firefighters

Occup Environ Med. 2022 Oct;79(10):656-663. doi: 10.1136/oemed-2021-108153. Epub 2022 Mar 24.


Objectives: Firefighters face exposures associated with adverse health outcomes including risk for multiple cancers. DNA methylation, one type of epigenetic regulation, provides a potential mechanism linking occupational hazards to adverse health outcomes. We hypothesised that DNA methylation profiles would change in firefighters after starting their service and that these patterns would be associated with occupational exposures (cumulative fire-hours and fire-runs).

Methods: We profiled DNA methylation with the Infinium MethylationEPIC in blood leucocytes at two time points in non-smoking new recruits: prior to live fire training and 20-37 months later. Linear mixed effects models adjusted for potential confounders were used to identify differentially methylated CpG sites over time using data from 50 individuals passing all quality control.

Results: We report 680 CpG sites with altered methylation (q value <0.05) including 60 with at least a 5% methylation difference at follow-up. Genes with differentially methylated CpG sites were enriched in biological pathways related to cancers, neurological function, cell signalling and transcription regulation. Next, linear mixed effects models were used to determine associations between occupational exposures with methylation at the 680 loci. Of these, more CpG sites were associated with fire-runs (108 for all and 78 for structure-fires only, q<0.05) than with fire-hours (27 for all fires and 1 for structure fires). These associations were independent of time since most recent fire, suggesting an impact of cumulative exposures.

Conclusions: Overall, this study provides evidence that DNA methylation may be altered by fireground exposures, and the impact of this change on disease development should be evaluated.

Keywords: epidemiology; firefighters; longitudinal studies; occupational Health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • DNA Methylation
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Firefighters*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms*
  • Occupational Exposure* / adverse effects