Firefighters are facing a higher cancer rate due to toxins and flame-retardant chemicals designed to protect them. A new study points to new dangers for firefighters and a job that seems more risky than ever before.
The study, published by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, found that firefighters had higher rates of cancer than the rest of us. In fact, the risk of mesothelioma in firefighters is more than double.
Where there is fire there is smoke: toxic smoke. Flame retardants are present in our clothes, our carpets, our furniture. When it burns, it releases chemicals that quite literally stick to firefighters.
It coats their gear. It seeps into their skin. And even after the fire is out, they continue to breathe in what it left behind.
Their skyrocketing cancer rates are no coincidence.
“We’re losing too many firefighters, and we’re talking about one a week and nationally almost daily that another firefighter is reported to have died from cancer,” said Kelly Fox of the Washington State Council of Firefighters.
Kirkland Fire Capt. Bill Hoover has been to so many funerals in recent years, he said, he has lost count.
“I think of a lot of people in my life, my fire life, and how they’ve met their end. And predominantly it’s cancer,” he said.
On May 21, USA Today reported that some fire stations have spare sets of gear to swap out. Others use specialized washing machines. However, removing toxins from products is not that easy.
Capt. Hoover has cancer, too.
“I’ve had cancer twice,” he said. “You go to bed knowing there’s a pretty good chance it’s gonna come back again.”
Everyone here will tell you: Removing toxins from products is daunting. A bill before the state Senate to ban toxic flame retardants stalled in the chamber, so firefighters work to minimize their exposure. Some stations have spare sets of gear to swap out. Others use specialized washing machines.
“It’s overwhelming to the point where you feel like you’re just in this hole and you can’t climb out. And then that hand comes down and someone pulls you up and they’re slappin’ you around and bringing you back to reality,” Lamb said.
It’s a reality that never was part of the job description but fuels a growing camaraderie.
The study looked at more than 30 types of cancer. A second phase of the study will look into how exposure to certain chemicals might be linked to specific cancers.