Lifesaving firefighters are risking their own lives – not necessarily because of flames and smoke but because of carcinogens.
In the years after the terrorist attacks in New York City in 2001, doctors began noticing an alarming increase in cancers among the many firefighters on the scene that horrific day.
We have since learned it’s not just the NYC firefighters; it’s firefighters far and wide, and some are battling cancer and/or dying of it as early as in their 30s, 40s and 50s. According to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, firefighters have a 60 percent chance of developing cancer – all forms of cancer – compared with about 20 percent for the general population.
It’s not difficult to understand why. While battling fires, a firefighter’s gear is good at withstanding intense heat. However, soot particles from the fire can and do seep into cracks of protective clothing, and the firefighter turns into what has been dubbed a “human sponge,” the body soaking up carcinogenic chemicals, and the absorption rate increases by 400 percent for every five-degree rise in body temperature.
Many of the most dangerous chemicals are those in flame-retardant materials – not to mention other chemicals – in furniture or other objects that emit a stew of toxins when they burn.
The ever-present dangers of toxins are exacerbated when – in some fire departments – there is no training or inadequate training on how firefighters should take pro-active methods on how to minimize risk. Another exacerbating factor is some departments do not have extractors in which to thoroughly wash all fire-fighting gear right after a fire. As a result, the carcinogenic materials can accumulate on the gear, compounding the danger. A quality extractor can cost up to and beyond $10,000 each.
In Minnesota there are about 20,000 firefighters, and 18,000 of them are part-time and/or volunteers. A Fox 9 News survey sent to 700 fire departments in Minnesota asked if there had been incidents of cancer among firefighters. One in five departments reported at least one firefighter diagnosed with cancer. One in 10 reported multiple cases, the most common being lung cancer and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The risk of cancer increases among the fighters of metro departments where bigger and more frequent fires must be battled.
It is difficult to obtain worker’s compensation for firefighters suffering from cancer because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to prove a connection between the firefighting and the cancer. It’s very much like the struggle to get the government to acknowledge the many health problems, disabilities, genetic chaos and death caused by Agent Orange, a defoliation chemical the military used in the long Vietnam War.
One possible solution is to ban the widespread use of many of these flammable-retardant chemicals, more training for fighters and fundraising drives if necessary so smaller departments can purchase state-of-the-art extractors. Another is more research to establish with certainty a connection between firefighting and cancer. Fortunately, the U.S. Congress approved the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act, co-sponsored by Minnesota’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who noted cancer has rapidly become the leading cause of death among firefighters, along with cardiac arrests.
The Cancer Registry requires the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to collect detailed data about how firefighters’ risk of cancer compares with the population as a whole. It is funded by $2 million annually through 2022. Such a national data bank is vital because it may also point the way to how to prevent such tragic cases of cancer among those who risk their lives to save others’ lives.
In the meantime, we should all become more aware of the insidious toxic dangers firefighters face.
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.