Firefighters Battle Fire, and Higher Risks of Cancer

Firefighters constantly rush into burning buildings on almost a daily bases, but new studies have found that battling fire is not their biggest fight.

Posted: May. 8, 2018 11:25 PM
Updated: May. 8, 2018 11:25 PM

(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) Firefighters constantly rush into burning buildings on almost a daily bases, but new studies have found that battling fire is not their biggest fight.

"From about 2000 to the year 2002, about 60 percent of the firefighters that have died what they consider to be line-of-duty deaths have died from cancer," St. Joseph Fire Chief Mike Dalsing said.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducted another study in 2010, where nearly 30,000 firefighters participated. The findings of the study indicated that firefighters were nine percent more at risk of getting diagnosed with cancer than the general population.

Firefighters were also shown to have a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer. 

When it comes to certain types of cancer, firefighters were shown to have two times the risk of being diagnosed with mesothelioma, and 62 percent higher risk of getting esophageal cancer.

"We explain the risks to [firefighters], we talk to them about that. You know, safety is a big part of the fire service," Kurt Fuehrer, SJFD training officer, said.

The department said some of the biggest risks come from absorbing chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde (byproducts of combustion) around the face and neck area. 

"The hoods, although they're nomexs, they still don't protect them from the fumes," Chief Dalsing said.

To help combat that issue, the fire department has issued a new clean hood program where firefighters are required to change out their hoods for clean ones after every fire.

The Battalion Chief on duty will have clean hoods on-hand for all firefighters, as well as face wipes. 

Fuehrer said in the past, dirty gear was worn as a badge of honor. However, that's not the case now.

"When I started 20 years ago everybody brought their gear upstairs at night, put your gear on, wore it everywhere you went. Today, we start them early you know, it's better to start before they even get on company teaching them how to protect themselves," Fuehrer said.

The department said they teach their men and women to not take dirty gear into the bedrooms or common areas, and to make sure everything gets washed after every use.

Other training techniques include using a gas meter on scene to check for any signs of gas or chemicals in the air before firefighters are allowed to take off their air packs.

Dalsing said most of the new stations are being built with a ventilated system that has a fan running 24/7 to create a constant airflow throughout the space. They are also using a system to keep engine exhaust, which contains many harmful particals and chemicals, from getting into the fire station. 

"We want everybody to go home. You know, we live by the motto 'everybody goes home', and when somebody does finally get to the point where they can retire you want them to be able to enjoy their retirement," Dalsing said.

The department also encourages their firefighters to take more physical precautions for keeping healthy and reducing risks. Dalsing said their employees are asked to shower when returning from a fire, and the department has started providing physicals for the firefighters.

Fuehrer said the department works to constantly keep up with new studies and tips for reducing risks of cancer. He said even firefighters in St. Joseph have been diagnosed with cancer related illnesses.

"I've known some of the retired guys that have come down with cancer and it's something I hope, you know, doesn't happen to any other guys," Fuehrer said.

Congress is currently considering whether to approve the creation of a National Firefighter Cancer Registry to get a firm handle on the number of deaths.

If you would like to help get this passed, you can contact your U.S. Representative and Senators ​and ask them to co-sponsor H.R 931/S. 382.

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