Have you thought about the chemicals that your firefighter is exposed to? Did you know firefighters have a 100 percent higher risk of developing testicular cancer, a 50 percent higher risk for multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and for prostate cancer it’s a 28 percent increased risk? I am not just talking about the chemicals that they are exposed to during the time of fighting the fire, but also the chemicals they are exposed to during clean up.
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 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
- Multiple myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Skin cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Malignant melanoma
- Brain cancer
- Colon cancer
- Breast cancer in women
The signs of firefighter exposure to the cancer causing chemicals are everywhere. Most photos and video that appear after a fire will show firefighters working in active and overhaul fires with their SCBA on their backs, but no masks. Firefighters are still proudly wearing dirty and contaminated bunker gear and helmets — the blacker the better. Yes, I know some fire instructors proudly wear their helmets and bunker gear as symbols of their fire fighting experience. Because of the cost of the bunker gear most firefighters only have one set of gear, which means they are continually re-contaminated from previous fires. Bunker gear still is stored in apparatus bays where it is bathed in diesel exhaust. Many firefighters carry their bunker gear in the trunks (or even inside) of their personal vehicles resulting in passing the contaminants into the passenger compartment and even into their homes. And how often do you get into his vehicle? What about when they put the contaminated gear into the cabs of their apparatus both before and after fires. And how often are the interiors of apparatus cabs cleaned?
Studies find that firefighters are developing far more aggressive types of cancers — such as brain cancers — at a younger age than the general population, which indicates that the cancer could be a result of fire fighting. Chemicals can enter into our firefighter’s bodies through the lungs. This is why it is important for our firefighter to wear his or her SCBA, even during overhaul. And, they can be absorbed through the skin. This is why they need to shower as soon as possible after a fire.
Firefighters transport bunker gear in their vehicles, wear clothing contaminated after a fire into their homes and expose their families to these chemicals. And we all know that paid firefighters don’t always take the time to shower, so they are transferring the chemicals onto the furniture in the fire station. What about when they come home? They hug the spouse and the kids. And, some crawl back into bed with us, yes our firefighters can contaminate us, our families and our homes. Do they realize this? Most likely no, they have never thought about the rate at which chemicals are absorbed into the skin.
OK, now that we have talked about the chemicals that your firefighter can come across, let’s talk about all the bunker gear. The most permeable piece of personal protective equipment is the hood. Hoods are designed to protect our firefighter’s head and neck from heat, but are not designed to stop skin absorption through the forehead, angle of the jaw, the neck and throat. Our firefighters know that a lot of soot gets through their hoods, sits on sweaty, hot areas of skin, and then is rubbed into the skin as the firefighter is working. But, what do they do about it? What about the gloves? The boots? Everything needs to be cleaned, even their skin.
Now it is your turn. Be careful, because our firefighters don’t like to be told how to keep their PPE cleaned. You need to talk to him about what he does and how he keeps it clean. There is a place where you and your firefighter can go to be tested. And it isn’t expensive. You can contact the International Firefighter Cancer Foundation. All members of fire and emergency medical services and their families are eligible to participate in the research study. The cost to participate in the program is a donation to offset materials, shipping charges and administrative costs. My firefighter and I have both been tested. And yes, we both came back clean. Hope you and your firefighter will take advantage of this important program, too.