Cancer is a serious problem for firefighters today, primarily because there was so much complacency in the past.
Bryan Frieders, president of Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN), says the correlation between firefighters and cancer cases is well known today, but only after studies showed firefighters were routinely exposed to cancer-causing materials for many years.
"Studies from 2013 prove the problem’s extent," he explains. "The industry designed protective equipment to limit heat exposure on skin, but we didn't realize the impact carcinogens were having on firefighters."
Frieders notes a typical house fire often exposes firefighters to 265 known cancer-causing materials. That doesn't include other sources of contamination, such as diesel exhaust from fire trucks and chemicals found in common cleaning supplies.
"For many years, dirty turnout equipment and melted helmets were seen as badges of courage among firefighters," he explains. "Little did they know that dirty gear was full of carcinogens that would eventually threaten their health and safety and that of their coworkers and family members."
Based on extensive studies, industry developments helped communities redesign fire stations to create healthier environments for first responders. For example, manufacturers developed heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment to push airborne contaminants out of the area rather than simply recirculating them along with air.
"In the past, firefighters stored dirty gear on the floor of crew quarters where it continued to expose them to cancer-causing materials throughout their shifts. Exercise equipment and ice machines were often located in the center of a fire station where people could breathe in contaminants or carcinogens could be absorbed into what they ate and drank," says Frieders.
Today, communities separate fire stations into three zones:
- Hot zones where contaminated equipment and dangerous products are stored separately and away from living areas.
- Warm zones where firefighters can change into and out of protective gear.
- Green zones which should be off limits to contaminated people and equipment.
The changes were essential, Frieders says, because one in three firefighters will contract cancer in their lives. In fact, he notes 75% of all line-of-duty firefighter deaths occur from cancer rather than dangerous fire situations.
FCSN helps firefighters recognize risks they face and take steps to minimize exposure to cancer-causing materials. The group also provides support to firefighters battling cancer, as well as their families, by matching cancer survivors with patients undergoing treatment.
Frieders identified nine things firefighters can do to protect themselves from job-related carcinogens, including:
- Using self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) at all times during an active fire—even after an initial attack is successful in overcoming flames and heat. Not wearing SCBA in active and post-fire environments is the most dangerous voluntary activity in the fire service today, he says.
- Decontaminating equipment in the field to remove as much soot and particulates as possible before climbing into a fire truck.
- Using wet wipes or moist towelettes to remove as much soot as possible from their head, neck, jaw, throat, underarms and hands while still at a scene.
- Changing clothes and washing them immediately after a fire.
- Showering thoroughly after a fire either at the station or immediately after volunteers return home.
- Thoroughly cleaning personal protective equipment, gloves, hood and helmet immediately after a fire.
- Ensuring contaminated clothes or equipment is not brought into a home or stored it in a personal vehicle.
- Cleaning and decontaminating the interior of every fire apparatus after returning to the station.
- Keeping turnout gear far away from living quarters and sleeping areas.
There are also two lifestyle changes firefighters can make to further reduce their risks. They are to stop using tobacco products and to frequently apply sun screen to exposed skin.
“Of all the things firefighters can do to protect themselves, making sure they use only the protective equipment assigned to them 100% of the time is essential,” says Frieders. “When taking off equipment after a fire is knocked down, toxins remain on it for quite some time. It is very important that gear and equipment be thoroughly cleaned.
“Firefighters should ensure they do not take gear into a personal vehicle, home or into crew quarters,” he adds. “It should be hermetically sealed in an air-tight package and placed in a special holding area for hazardous materials.”
In fact, well-equipped laundry facilities with equipment to safely remove and dispose of the toxins should clean the gear. Because of the composition of turnout gear, common household washing machines cannot adequately remove all carcinogens.
“It is essential that firefighters clean themselves immediately after a fire by showering within an hour after returning to the station,” he adds. “They should use plenty of soap, not just rinse off their bodies.”
Firefighters also should keep a record of exposures to toxicants and carcinogens, even from incidents that are not covered by traditional hazardous materials guidelines. A structure blaze, burning vehicle, dumpster fire and even wildland fires contain the same chemicals and toxins—sometimes in even greater concentrations—found in hazmat releases.
Without question, the most important thing firefighters can do to protect themselves is to become strong advocates for their own health, says Frieders.
“They should get frequent cancer screenings and make sure they have a regular colonoscopy starting at the age of 40 rather than waiting until they reach 50, which is recommended for most people,” he explains. “Pay attention to your own body. You know it better than anyone else.
“If something just doesn’t feel right, check it out. Don’t allow others to convince you that ‘it’s probably nothing,’” he adds. “With early detection, it’s easier for people to fully recover from most types of cancer. Be aware of your surroundings and alert others to potential dangers you see.”
For more information about cancer risks and what firefighters can do to minimize those risks, visit www.firefightercancersupport.org.