Cancer risk up for fire crews
Departments launch efforts to prevent illnesses caused by exposure to toxins
From the moment an alarm sounds, firefighters drop everything and put it all on the line to protect lives and property.
While it seems that the immediate danger goes away once the flames are extinguished, firefighters face life-threatening consequences long after they exit the scene of an emergency.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer is one of the leading causes of death in firefighters, and research from the National Fire Protection Association said there is a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths compared to the general population.
As more research becomes available, fire departments from around the area have doubled their efforts to prevent firefighter cancer.
“There’s more education for firefighters now and more studies on cancer prevention,” said John Hawksworth, a member of the Dauntless Fire Company in Ebensburg and a state fire instructor. “Because of more research and more training, firefighters have a much better general awareness of what we’re up against now.”
Cancer caused 66% of the career firefighter line-of-duty deaths from 2002-19, according to data from the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The number of deaths are concerning, officials said, but with the root of the problem diagnosed, they can now take the appropriate action to fight back.
“Everyone has a much better awareness of what’s going on,” said Cambria County Emergency Management Director Art Martynuska, the former president of the Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighters Association and who helped introduce legislation in 2014 to combat firefighter cancer. “Firefighter cancer is a big issue, and everyone is taking the necessary precautions to stay safe not only at a fire, but in the long term as well.”
The majority of cancer cases, the NFPA said, results from firefighters’ long-term exposure to carcinogens, which are cancer-causing substances found in smoke.
Firefighters said that in previous generations, they could endear themselves to fellow members by becoming a “smoke eater,” which was a firefighter that entered a burning building and ingested smoke before the self-contained breathing apparatus was invented.
When inhaled, the carcinogens enter the bloodstream and can cause short and long-term implications.
As more synthetic materials such as plastic and foam appear in houses, even more deadly toxins are being released, putting the health of firefighters in further danger.
“Houses give off a lot of bad stuff when they burn,” Martynuska said. “There are polymers and all these carcinogens that are very harmful for firefighters.”
Over time, self-contained breathing apparatus became common in fire departments for its ability to provide fresh air to a firefighter and keep out any toxic gases.
While SCBA remains an integral part of a firefighter’s equipment, recent studies show it takes more than wearing such equipment to prevent cancer.
The NFPA said firefighters are contaminated with toxic gases and other carcinogens when they exit a burning building, and even thick, layered turnout gear could be permeable for toxic substances.
After a fire, firefighters said they now decontaminate on scene by spraying and scrubbing their personal protective equipment with water.
“These dangerous carcinogens can stay with you long after a fire,” Martynuska said. “By decontaminating, you can scrub off the majority of those dangerous chemicals and prevent exposure to them.”
Fire trucks are now built with an optional decontamination shower, and the Dauntless Fire Company was recently one of the first in the area to integrate the shower, Martynuska said.
Firefighters also wash their hands, arms and face when they return to the station in addition to sanitizing the interior of the fire truck cab to clean off any lingering smoke particles and gases.
Martynuska said many fire departments also have mandated yearly physicals for firefighters to help identify any potential signs of cancer.
There is always the possibility of being exposed to carcinogens, but firefighters said that with more knowledge and increased efforts, they can better protect themselves now and in the future.
“We used to take all these dangerous carcinogens home with us after a fire,” Hawksworth said. “With all the research out there, we now know how to take better care of ourselves.”