Talk the Truth - Cancer Kills Firefighters

I cannot express how much I enjoy and learn from the continued interaction with all the firefighters or "view crew members" in the various social media accounts. Every day there seems to be another interesting topic that comes up that stirs the conversation like a Jimmy Buffet blender in the middle of summer.

One topic that keeps coming up is the exposure that firefighters are facing to cancer causing materials. From the diesel exhaust that we breathe in to the carcinogen-soaked turnout gear we wear, the hazards are hitting us from all angles. Everyone seems to agree that these things “cause” cancer but I wanted to understand this danger a little more.  With my trusty laptop and little furry dog at my side, I searched for some answers to what really causes cancer in firefighters and what can we do to limit this exposure. 

First, the carcinogens that kept coming up is the diesel exhaust that is produced by our vehicles. This topic is not new to this jumpseat rider as I wrote an Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) application in 2002 for a diesel exhaust removal system for my then career department. In researching the grant I discovered just how bad diesel exhaust is. From the Benzene and carbon monoxide to the other carcinogen-carrying particles diesel smoke is bad for us. Most of us have known these facts for years, but how many of us really pay attention to it? How often do our exhaust removal hoses go unconnected as the walls of our stations become blacker and blacker with soot? Next time you notice the walls of your station turning black, remember that your lungs can look the same way inside your body!

The second most talked about topic in social media was the saturation of your turnout gear with carcinogens. Following the melted helmet blog, more and more firefighters responded with comments and revelations about cleaning their turnout gear. The feedback was eye opening. From "I never thought of it that way" to "I’m cleaning my helmet right now" was awesome and the responses were truly amazing.  During this discussion, everyone spoke about it just ”causing cancer” not how or why this practice causes cancer. 

I am sure that, like most of you, I need to understand the why is in order for my behavior to truly change. With that in mind, here are some facts that I was able to find:

  • Links have been shown between cancer and chemicals we see regularly such as Styrene, Benzene, soot, and Formaldehyde
  • These carcinogens have been linked to testicular, prostate, skin, brain, rectum, stomach and colon cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma and malignant melanoma
  • If you do not clean your gear, you will be exposed routinely long after the fire is extinguished.
  • Carcinogens enter through respiratory tract and can be absorption through the skin

If that does not scare you what does?

Let us look at this danger from the jumpseat rider’s perspective. Performing the simple tasks of prevention early and often in your career will help you make it long into your retirement. It is not the officer’s job to remind you to connect the exhaust hoses, nor is it their responsibility to remind you to wash your gear. I have long looked at the person with the dirty gear and burned up helmet as the best firefighter, but this view may be short lived as they walk around soaking up the cancer causing particles in their gear.  

We all understand how dangerous of a job we have. Every day it seems like we have a new "study" of "the dangers being presented to us."  It’s time that we, the street level firefighter, pay attention to them all. The look of a "battle-hardened" firefighter is changing.  It’s changing from a burned up glob to a cleaned up, cancer free, firefighter who leads by example. Firehouse has published a bunch of resources already, check out the related box here for more info and podcasts.

Be safe everyone and remember that the Jumpseat rider can be the most exposed firefighter on any fire because it is you that is in there doing the basic tasks. This means that you could be at more risk than any other firefighter. Clean your gear and let’s all kill cancer! 

Data provided by: University of Cinncinati Study on Firefighter Cancer

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