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Developing Cancer-Prevention and Safety Reforms, Education and Awareness

Cancer studies in emergency responders began in earnest after the Ground Zero cleanup after the 9/11 attacks in New York and awareness is spreading nationwide.  In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the final results of what is currently the largest study of cancer risk among career firefighters ever conducted in the United States.


The study of about 30,000 firefighters over a 60-year span showed that compared with the general population, firefighters on average are at higher risk for certain kinds of cancer — mainly oral, digestive, respiratory, genital and urinary cancers.


The CDC also found that firefighters who were exposed to more fires than their peers experienced more instances of lung cancer and leukemia, said Robert Daniels, the principal investigator of the project and a research epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.


The Risks are Widespread

Fires carry soot and smoke from high-toxin synthetic materials, electronics and other chemicals. Exhaust fumes from diesel fire engines present a hazard. The protective gear that insulates firefighters from heat and flames also raises body temperatures, opening pores to absorb chemicals. Workplace cancers are the hidden hazard and the silent killer in the fire service, and we are just seeing just how bad the problem is. 

Concerned with the results of the CDC study and similar research coming out of Norway and Australia and fire departments are actively revamping safety policies.


In  2018  legislation requiring the CDC to set up a registry of firefighters was passed.  This new legislation will track links between their workplace exposures and cancer. NIOSH will take the lead in establishing the registry.


Creating Awareness

Smoke on your gear and smoke on your helmet used to be a sign that you’re an experienced firefighter, but now people just recognize it’s a hazard and not worth it.  Smoke eaters are no more.


Pants are now washed after every call.  Saunas are just beginning to be used in firehouses to decontaminate firefighters skin, and tubes are hooked to fire engine exhaust pipes in fire stations to vent fumes outside, heavy protective jackets, helmets are cleaned after every fire, etc.


Low-tech strategies include carrying baby wipes on the firetrucks for firefighters to use to clean their skin after a fire is out but while they are still at a scene.  However, there is much more to be done to educate and raise awareness of the hidden dangers faced by first responders.

Portions of text were taken from Washington Post /Firefighters and cancer: Is a risky job even riskier?

By Peter Hermann and Lynh Bui, February 24, 2017

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