Deadly Exposure: Protecting firefighters from contaminants
Firefighters are well aware of the dangers of their job. But life-changing diseases, specifically cancer, are usually the last thing they prepare for when they put on their gear.
That’s the chilling reality faced by many of them, according to research at Public Safety Medical in Indianapolis.
They conducted a study of 2,818 firefighters between 1985 and 2013. During that time period, 857 of them ended up having malignant cancers, and 30.4 percent of those with cancer died.
So the question remains: with all the gear and protection they wear, why isn’t it enough to stop the deadly carcinogens?
“Maybe you’re done fighting a fire, but you take your mask off and there’s still smoke, it’s smoldering, so you have all those toxic fumes in the area,” South Bend Fire Department Capt. Gerard Ellis said.
Those fumes get into the pores, mouth and lungs of firefighters. So, while the imminent risk seems over, firefighters are still exposed to the deadly particles.
“So a firefighter that’s on scene after a fire, we want to gross decontaminate as much of our gear as possible on scene before we get back into the cab,” Ellis said.
That includes hosing down their gear and wiping their faces, neck and hands with anti-carcinogen wipes.
“Just the fact of making sure we protect our greatest asset, which is ourselves,” Clay Fire Marshal Dave Cherrone said.
And while these changes are being strictly enforced at some local fire departments, it’s too late for some.
“Everybody here knows guys that have either been diagnosed or passed away from cancer,” South Bend Fire Chief Stephen Cox said.
“In my case, I know multiple guys on the department throughout my career that I've known that have actually died from cancer while they were still on the department, and so there certainly is a link.”
The link has put doctors and researchers in a race against time, trying to come up with more robust tactics and technology to prevent cancer.
The exposures firefighters face today are completely different than 30 years ago.
“The reason is because of all the treatments to furniture, all the glues and resins that are burning in these new fires are totally different,” Public Safety Medical’s Dr. Steven Moffatt said. “And so the long-term exposure to that is not fully understood, and so firefighters are very concerned about that."
Josh Comeau started his career at the South Bend Fire Department in 2007. In 2014, he was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive type of brain cancer.
After undergoing several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, he started back up at the fire department. But then his cancer returned.
“I was thinking, 'You know what? I think I'm ready to be done with anything cancer related,'” Comeau said.
He believes his cancer is from years of exposure while on the job.
But despite this, he and his wife, Rosary, are thankful for the changes they’re seeing in the department since his diagnosis.
“We do feel like if we can educate and share, if his story can be something that helps some of these changes be made in the fire department here in South Bend but also nationwide, one of the best things we could ask for,” Rosary said.
Fire departments are requiring annual cancer screenings for all firefighters, and researchers continue to study these deadly carcinogens in hopes of saving the lives of those who save us.