Excerpted from the Firefighter Support Cancer Network document August 2013
What is the Firefighter Cancer Problem? Firefighter cancer is a looming personal catastrophe for each and every firefighter. Cancer is the most dangerous and unrecognized threat to the health and safety of our nation’s firefighters.
Multiple studies, including the soon-to-be-released NIOSH cancer study, have repeatedly demonstrated credible evidence and biologic creditability for statistically higher rates of multiple types of cancers in firefighters compared to the general American population including:
■ Testicular cancer (2.02 times greater risk)
■ Multiple myeloma (1.53 times greater risk)
■ Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (1.51 times greater risk)
■ Skin cancer (1.39 times greater risk)
■ Prostate cancer (1.28 times greater risk)
■ Malignant melanoma (1.31 times great risk)
■ Brain cancer (1.31 times greater risk)
■ Colon cancer (1.21 times great risk)
■ Leukemia (1.14 times greater risk)
■ Breast cancer in women (preliminary study results from the San Francisco Fire Department)
We are just beginning to understand the horrific magnitude of the problem, the depth of our naiveté, the challenges involved and the changes required in education, training, operations, medical screenings and personal accountability to effectively address cancer in the fire service. The signs of firefighters’ exposure to carcinogens are everywhere:
■ Photos appear every day of firefighters working in active and overhaul fire environments with SCBA on their backs but not masks on their faces.
■ Firefighters still proudly wear dirty and contaminated turnout gear and helmets.
■ Some fire instructors wear their carcinogen-loaded helmets and bunker gear as symbols of their firefighting experience.
■ Diesel exhaust, a recognized carcinogen, still contaminates many fire stations — apparatus bays as well as living, sleeping and eating quarters.
■ Many firefighters only have one set of gear which means they are continually re-contaminated from previous fires.
■ Some diesel exhaust systems — even when installed — are not used, are used incorrectly or are poorly maintained.
■ Bunker gear still is stored in apparatus bays where it is bathed in diesel exhaust.
■ Bunker gear goes unwashed for months at a time, even after significant fires.
■ Many volunteers carry their contaminated gear in the trunks of their personal vehicles resulting in superheating and enhanced off-gassing of contaminants into the passenger compartment and sometimes even into their homes.
■ Firefighters put their contaminated gear into the cabs of their apparatus both before and after fires.
■ Some firefighters still take their contaminated bunker pants and boots into sleeping quarters.
■ The interiors of apparatus cabs are rarely decontaminated.
■ Many firefighters do not take showers immediately following fires.
“Pinpointing the cause of cancer is extremely difficult because firefighters are not exposed to just one agent. They are exposed to multiple cancer-causing agents. Because of the multiple exposures and the multiple routes of exposure — they inhale carcinogens and carcinogens are absorbed through the skin — it is also highly unlikely for firefighters to get only one type of cancer,” said Grace LeMasters, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at the University of Cincinnati and the lead author of a 2006 meta-analysis of 32 published studies of cancer in firefighters.
Unfortunately, there is no immediate visible impact of carcinogenic exposure, since the time between exposure to carcinogens and the appearance of malignancies can be 20 years or longer, known as the latency period.
“We are not making this up,” IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger said. “The connection between firefighting and cancer is real, and there is scientific data to support our position. But we cannot stop there — we must continue to learn more so we can prevent our members from contracting this horrible disease and help them if they do.”
IAFC VCOS Chairman, Chief Tim Wall agreed. “Cancer does not discriminate between firefighters,” he said. “Volunteers routinely transport bunker gear in their vehicles, wear clothing contaminated after a fire into their homes and expose their families to these carcinogens. This is a terrible problem that requires our full attention and immediate action.”
ESO WC GROUP
VFIS of Texas