San Francisco Firefighters Lead Nation In Trying To Detect, Prevent Cancer

When crews go into a fire, they have respirators and oxygen tanks to help them breathe and protect their lungs. But it turns out there may be other risk factors for cancer in the clothes that firefighters wear.

Firefighters are not only exposed to flames, but they are also exposed to burning chemicals and burning chemicals when they head into those fires. And it used to be that they wouldn’t wash their gear as a sense of pride. But not anymore.

At a fire in the Mission District on Saturday and Sunday, we noticed crew members doing something odd after they put the blaze out — they were spraying each other down. That little action is a big change for the San Francisco Fire Department.

“I wore that same set of turnouts for a number of days, completely dirty as a badge of honor,” said Lieutenant Jonathan Baxter as he remembered his first call years ago.

Spraying off the soot on scene is the first step in what is now a massive effort by the department to prevent alarming rates of cancer.

“Oh average, I believe it’s eight to 12 years a firefighter lives after they retire, and probably about 79 percent of those pass away from the result of job-related cancers,” said Thomas O’Connor, president of the San Francisco Firefighter’s Union.

O’Connor says the department is actually leading the nation in trying to detect and prevent cancer. The department has participated in national studies that have linked their health with their working environments.

At Fire Station 7, dirty equipment on the way to a call is no longer cool.

If someone gets in the truck with dirty turnouts, firefighter Darius Luttrop says, “They ask them to please put on a clean set of turnouts so that they don’t expose the rest of us to the contaminants in the turnouts.”

After a fire, crews will get back to the station and wash their clothes in a special machine, or they’ll package them up and send them off to a company for special treatment.

For firefighters, clean equipment may lead to better health.


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