Firefighter Cancer, Health Discussed at VA Conference

May 24, 2024
Tips about reducing exposures and the staggering statistics were among the topics discussed during the symposium in Fredericksburg.

May 24—The point of the symposium wasn't to tell firefighters they're at higher risk for cancer than the general population.

They probably already know that.

Occupational cancer is the leading cause of death in the fire service, responsible for three of every four line-of-duty deaths since 2019 among union members alone, according to the International Association of Firefighters union.

That's why the second annual Virginia Firefighter Cancer Awareness and Health Symposium, held Thursday at the Fick Conference Center in Fredericksburg, focused on ways to reduce associated risks.

More than 130 firefighters from Virginia Beach to Northern Virginia registered for the event, which included free screenings for various types of cancer or heart damage. The symposium was sponsored by Spotsylvania County Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management and the Virginia chapter of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

Those in the fire service should think of their cancer risks as drops falling into a bucket, said Derek Urwin, an engineer with the Los Angeles County Fire Department Engineer who's also an assistant adjunct professor of biochemistry at UCLA.

It may look like the bucket will never fill up, but check 12 hours later, and it's overflowed from the continuous drips.

"When we think about our occupational exposures, we have to think of every single one of them, every whiff of smoke, every smudge of soot on your face as a drop in the bucket," said Urwin, who went back to school to study firefighter risks after his brother died of leukemia. "Our goal as firefighters has to be keeping as many drops out of this bucket as possible while still being able to do our jobs."

That can be difficult when the list of cancer-causing agents is "massive," Urwin said. It includes daily exposure to smoke from structure and woodland fires, diesel exhaust, fumes from synthetic chemicals in household products, asbestos, flame retardants and even the sleep disruption caused by working various shifts.

There are so many dangers that the International Agency for Research on Cancer says working as a firefighter can be considered a carcinogenic to humans, just as benzene or radiation might be, Urwin said.

His talk ranged from the complex to seemingly simple. In one breath, he was explaining the way exposures can alter a person's DNA; in another, he suggested firefighters "shower within the hour" to remove the smoke and soot from their bodies before chemicals from them seep into the skin.

Other techniques include using baby wipes on the scene to clean off hands, faces and other exposed areas until a shower is available. Firefighters should not use their turnout gear until after it's been cleaned and those cancer-causing chemicals removed, speakers said.

And, instead of tossing the gear into the back of a personal vehicle, put it in a duffel bag or other storage device to seal off possible contamination, Urwin said.

Lt. Mitch Nason, president of the Prince Williams Professional Firefighters group, said he puts his in a box in the back seat of his vehicle after learning about potential toxins.

"A couple years ago, it would have just been sitting in the back, in the same spot where my kids sit when I'm not hauling my gear around," he said.

Nason has been fighting fires for 19 years and said the dangers weren't discussed, or even known about, when he started. Then, studies confirmed what firefighters suspected, and unions lobbied for certain types of cancer to be automatically covered by Workman's Compensation when evidence showed the high risk in firefighting.

"But that's not enough, we want to have something beyond that, a little prevention," Nason said. "I'm excited to be sitting here and learning about what we can do on the front end."

Coordinating the ventilation of a building during fire suppression can eliminate some of the time firefighters are exposed to potential risks, Urwin said. Likewise, parking fire trucks outside the station, even for a few hours, can cut down on the fumes from diesel exhaust.

Urwin also suggested departments look at different methods for fire training to limit the time recruits spend around products bonded with synthetic resins.

Others agreed that the "bucket" of exposures will never be totally emptied, but can be lessened.

"You can't minimize every hazard in the fire service, it's not possible, but you can limit it," said Matthew Embrey, who retired as a division chief in 2022 from Spotsylvania County Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management.

A little over three weeks after his sendoff, which came after 34 years in the fire service, Embrey learned he had kidney cancer. He'd gotten a screening, provided for free to county firefighters, and it showed a 5.4-centimeter mass.

After the kidney was removed and Embrey recovered, he went to work for United Diagnostic Services, the company that provided the ultrasounds. He travels the country, sharing his survivor story with others.

He gets a little teary-eyed when he talks about saving just one life. He suspects that's exactly what the screening did for him because the kidney cancer wasn't detected during the complete physical he had two weeks before retirement.

During Thursday's event, UDS provided free screenings to 14 firefighters. When the company visits fire departments, it charges about $325 per screening. If done separately, the tests probably would cost at least $2,500, said Steve Weissman, a fellow cancer survivor, former Stafford County firefighter and the Virginia director of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

"Early detection saves lives, that's the message," he said, adding that 59 Virginia firefighters diagnosed with cancer reached out to him in 2023. Seven of them died last year, and their average age was 54 years old.

The symposium also included a relatively new test for firefighters, screening of the esophagus by Lucid Diagnostics. Ryan McGill, a King George County resident and cancer reduction chairman with the local firefighters' union, said he thought it was the first time that screening was being offered in the Fredericksburg area.

Virginia Del. Phillip Scott dropped by the symposium to thank the firefighters for "willfully going into burning buildings to save lives" despite knowing the personal risks they face.

"That doesn't go unnoticed," Scott said, adding that the General Assembly is looking at ways to provide cancer screenings for the 10,000 professional firefighters in Virginia.


(c)2024 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)

Visit The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.) at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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