Preparedness & Recovery

Firefighters Ask for Funds to Help Combat Cancer Risks

According to a study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety Health completed in 2015, U.S. firefighters have a significantly increased risk of death from cancer compared to the rest of the population.

by Brian Todd, Post-Bulletin / April 26, 2017

(TNS) - "These guys are going to get cancers of the worst types," said Pat Pike, a volunteer firefighter in Pine Island.

At the Pine Island City Council meeting on last Tuesday, Pike, along with Fire Chief Brandon Sather, talked to the city council about the increased risk of cancer firefighters face. That risk, Sather said, is increased in Pine Island because some basic safety features are missing at the fire hall, features that are starting to become standard across the industry.

The risk

According to a study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety Health completed in 2015, U.S. firefighters have a significantly increased risk of death from cancer compared to the rest of the population.

"The (standardized mortality ratio) for all cancers is 1.14, this suggests firefighters have an excess risk of 14 percent compared to the U.S. population," said Dr. Robert Daniels, an epidemiologist and health physicist with the Centers for Disease Control. "This estimate is considered statistically significant, meaning the differences observed between the groups are not likely due to chance."

Daniels said hundreds of different chemical substances in the form of gases, vapors and particulates can inhabit a firefighting environment. "Some of these substances are known or suspected human carcinogens," he said.

And it's not just the environment of a fire that can be a health hazard. Diesel exhaust is a known carcinogen as well, and can be present both at the scene of a fire or any time firefighters are near a running engine in their garage bays. Dr. Kenny Fent, a research industrial hygienist and commander in the U.S. Public Health Service, said firefighters can be exposed when they breathe diesel exhaust without wearing respiratory protection, from off-gassing contaminated equipment or via skin absorption.

Old fire hall

For Pine Island firefighters, the risk from diesel exhaust does not come just from the scene of fires. Occassionally, and especially during colder months, Pine Island crews run the diesel engines in the garage during maintenance or equipment checks. However, Sather said, the fire hall his not equipped with a venting system to remove engine exhaust directly from the building. And the firefighters store their turnout gear right in the garage.

Sather shared with the city council a host of other problems that can lead to increased cancer risk. For example, the firefighters have just one set of turnout gear and, as Fent noted, the gear can off-gas carcinogens if not properly washed.

"We could use gear extractors," he said, referring to a special washing machine that helps remove harmful chemicals from their suits. "Otherwise, we put them back on and it just gets on our skin."

Another option would be a second set of turnout gear, which can run more than $2,000 per firefighter times nearly 30 firefighters. The fire hall also needs showers — cold ones — to allow firefighters to wash after a fire. The cold water is to keep their pores from opening as they try to remove harmful chemicals from their skin, Sather said.

In all, Sather said, the list of items to help guard against increased cancer risk could cost the city $200,000.

"We knew there were possible hazards here, but not to this level," Pike said, adding that the research on cancer among firefighters is fairly new. He said he has seen more than a few friends in the fire service come down with cancer. "This is life and death for those firefighters."

Daniels said more research is needed to understand health risks among volunteer firefighters compared to those firefighters in big city departments like those from the NIOSH study.

"The question of whether firefighter cancer risks differ by work experience is important and should be considered in future research," he said. "Unfortunately, research on volunteer firefighters is sparse."

New attitudes

Tonight, St. Charles Fire Chief Mike Schultz will present his city council with several options for a new extractor for the fire hall. The machines — Schultz said he is looking at 30-pound extractors, which would wash about two sets of turnout gear at a time, taking about an hour — cost between $6,000 and $8,000.

For Schultz, it is another step in the process of protecting his crew. "We're going to see if the city can put forth money above our budget to make this happen," he said. Already, the fire department has purchased vapor barrier hoods to keep fumes off firefighters necks and faces. They purchase a special wipe that helps clean the skin of contaminates. "We're trying to be more proactive."

When the new fire hall was built in 2015, they installed special air exchangers to vent the diesel exhaust.

"As soon as we start the trucks up and go out, the air exchanger kicks in and gets rid of all that diesel exhaust," he said.

Like Pike in Pine Island, Schultz said he has been paying attention to new protocols as news about cancer among firefighters becomes better understood.

"It's all about a new attitude," he said. "There are studies showing what's on a firefighter's turnouts if they're not washed with an extractor. We tell them don't put your worn turnouts in your personal vehicle because as it heats up, it off-gasses. Don't take them home."

And among themselves, Schultz said, firefighters are talking about it.

"It's not just the public that doesn't know about this, but firefighters themselves don't know," he said. "There's been more talk over the past couple of years."

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