Municipalities Answering Alarm Over Rise In Firefighter Cancers

WESTON, OH — Battling burning buildings is acknowledged to be just part of the hazardous job for firefighters, but now they are also seeing a statistical rise in cancer cases throughout the career and municipalities are responding with revised preventative measures, including purchasing new gear. Weston is also following the national response and recently approved new turnout gear and decontamination equipment for its fire department.

“On the cancer issue, it used to be that those with the dirty gear were the heroes. They were the people to always go inside. Those were the cool guys and now it’s coming back. Unfortunately, now it’s those cool guys that are getting all the cancer because they didn’t clean their gear. They wanted it to be dirty, to show they did something,” said Weston Fire Chief Justin Selders.

Post-fire soot and grime are no longer the badge of honor they once were. Departments are adding procedures to quickly remove toxins from the firefighter’s skin and also keep particles out of the buildings where they live and work.

Modern manmade materials used in the construction of buildings can emit a mix of toxins when burned.

“Toxins were falling off the gear in trucks and the firehouse,” said Greg Walterhouse, a retired fire chief from Michigan, who teaches in the Fire Administration program at Bowling Green State University. Extractor washing machines that can clean the heavy gear are in the $5,000 price range, so many departments, like the Weston Fire Department, have opted for its own preventive solution — a garden hose and line drying the extra gear. Extra sets of turnout gear have to be purchased.

The price of new turnout gear in Weston, as approved by the village council on March 5, was $33 each for eight pairs of extrication gloves and $48 each for 12 new carbon hoods, for a total of $840.

The physical costs of not going through the decontamination procedures are just starting to appear.

Today, according to Walterhouse, new laws in Ohio and Michigan put a firefighter’s cancer under the worker’s compensation system. At roughly 65 percent of average pay, Walterhouse has heard estimates of up to $75 million per year in costs for Ohio municipalities.

“The cancer presumption laws are not totally unique … it’s not like this came out of the blue,” Walterhouse said. “Every department in the state is going to be affected by it.”

Garry Briese, former executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said in 2013 “that if we added in the active duty firefighters dying from cancer to the Line of Duty Deaths, it would grow from the under 100 we are currently experiencing to over 800 deaths per year.”

In 2013, Briese reported six different forms of cancer showing greater risk for firefighters as compared to the general American population. The industry website Firehouse.com is reporting the results of studies showing nine different forms of cancer ranging from testicular cancer, at 2.02 times greater risk than that of the general population, to leukemia, at 1.14 times greater risk. Preliminary studies have also shown increased rates of breast cancer, with research continuing.

Walterhouse points out some of the other proactive and inexpensive methods being used today to fight cancer-causing toxins being absorbed through the skin. Gear is being removed at the scene, baby wipes are being used and the firefighters shower as soon as they return to the department. It’s believed that the toxins enter the skin at high friction points, where blood vessels are close to the surface of the skin. Some departments are even installing saunas so firefighters can sweat out toxins.

The turnout gear, including hoods, helmets, gloves and other duplicate pieces, are immediately hose-washed after the fire, with one set drying with the other set ready to be worn to the next emergency.

More information on the cancer issue with firefighters can be found at the https://firefightercancersupport.org/ website.