Battling an Unseen Danger: Cancer Among Firefighters

Battling an Unseen Danger: Cancer Among Firefighters

Bethany Carpenter

Bethany Carpenter

Content Writer

Firefighters risk their lives for our safety every day, in more ways than one. Although smoke and fire take many lives, cancer is a silent killer proving to be just as lethal.

According to a 2013 NIOSH study, there is a scary relationship between firefighting and cancer.

NIOSH researchers studied cancers and cancer deaths among 29,993 firefighters from the Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco fire departments. They found that the rate of mesothelioma was two times greater among the group of firefighters in the study than it was in the U.S. population as a whole.

According to the researchers, the findings are likely associated with exposure to asbestos, a cause of mesothelioma. In addition, researchers found firefighters are often exposed to contaminants such as benzene and formaldehyde, which can also lead to cancer.

CBS4 reporter Michele Gillen has been following cases of cancer in fighter fighters across the country for the past few years. As part of her investigation Gillen has met with numerous firefighters, including Miami-Dade Fire Captain and cancer survivor Bob Carpenter. Carpenter noted that in December 2013, six members of the Miami-Dade Fire Department were diagnosed with cancer.

“There’s a lot of attention for line of duty deaths. Firefighters who die in a burning building, in a collapse – the funerals are on television. The truth is the number of us dying with our boots off is far greater,” Carpenter said.

According to Gillen, it’s not just exposure to contaminants while fighting fires that pose as a hazard to firefighters. Even after a fire has been extinguished, gear is still laden with compounds designated as carcinogens. These carcinogens include diesel engine exhaust, asbestos and formaldehyde.

Toxin-laden gear is often stored near areas where firefighters spend their down time, and whenever there’s an emergency call they have to put that contaminated gear right back on. Also, firefighter’s bed bunks are commonly located right next to vehicle bays, where diesel fuel can easily leak into the air. Such continuous expose to toxins only increases the likelihood of developing health problems down the road.

A University of Cincinnati research study also found that firefighters are more likely to develop certain types of cancers than non-firefighters. The researcher’s findings showed that firefighters are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer. Findings also displayed higher rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and prostate cancer among firefighters than among those who work in other fields.

According to the National Cancer Institute, 1.4 percent of women between the ages of 40 to 49 will develop breast cancer. A February 2012 count of breast cancer victims within the San Francisco Fire Department found that their average was nearly ten times greater, at 13.6 percent.

Firefighters put their lives on the line every day they go to work. They’re job is our safety. So what can be done for their safety?

One answer is proper education and training in hazardous substances and procedures for reducing exposure on the job. Safety procedures for protecting against hazardous substances include the use of personal protective equipment and proper washing and decontamination processes. It’s important for firefighters know what hazards exist within their job, as well as how to combat those hazards through safety measures. Increased safety leads to decreased job-related illness and disease, including cancer.

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