Cancer: The Hidden Threat for Firefighters

Firefighters are regularly exposed to dangerous environments. On top of the obvious threat of getting burned by flames, other health risks cause harm unknowingly in the long-term. From a study conducted by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), it is concluded that firefighters experience a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses, and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths, compared to the general population in the US. As well, cancer impacts an estimated 61% of fatalities for line-of-duty career firefighters. This can be attributed to the extremely harmful materials that firefighters are exposed to including carbon monoxide, benzene, sulfur dioxide, and asbestos, among many others. These chemicals mostly originate from our furniture and other household items as they are commonly made with synthetic materials. When caught on fire, these chemicals change their structure and become very toxic. These carcinogenic chemicals cause serious forms of cancer such as oral, digestive, respiratory, and urinary cancer, as well as multiple myeloma. Even more frightening is that these toxins can stay hidden in the body for years. With an estimated 1.1 million firefighters in the US alone, this is an issue that cannot be ignored.



What is the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act?

The link between firefighter work and cancer has been consistently proven in previous studies, like the NIOSH study done in 2015. However, overall, the studies have been extremely limited in terms of sample size. In particular, there is an issue with an underrepresented number of women and minorities. A more comprehensive study is needed to understand the link between firefighting and cancer better, and that is what the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act aims to fulfill. This bill, which was signed by President Donald Trump on July 7, 2018, directs the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to establish and maintain a voluntary registry to better track the relationship between firefighter work and cancer. In addition to compiling key data points such as the number and type of fires each firefighter attended, it will consider other key variables such as the firefighter’s age, time in the fire service, smoker or non-smoker, whether they are volunteer or career firefighters, and if they had any additional exposures through non-FD activities. With $2.5 million funding from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is hosting the largest firefighter cohort to date. It’s estimated to be five years before the research yields results.

Chris Collins, who co-authored this legislation, stated that

With cancer being the leading cause of death for firefighters, it is clear that this link needs to be well-understood to develop preventative measures to protect firefighters.


Current Preventative Strategies

It is a common belief that having gear and helmet covered with soot after a day on the job was a badge of honor, but now we must understand that that is a sign of extreme danger. Below are some preventative strategies that you and your department can take to reduce the risk of cancer.

Keep your mask on

Respiratory cancer is prevalent among firefighters. It is imperative to keep your mask on to avoid breathing in toxins.



Clean your hood at least once a week (or even better, after every fire)

The face and neck are one of the most vulnerable areas to encounter toxins, which is why wearing a clean hood is essential. Better yet, have two hoods so that a clean alternate is always on hand.


Remove contaminated gear as soon as possible

Toxins cling to fabric, which is why removing your soiled gear and storing it in an isolated area, is crucial in avoiding further contamination to other areas. After doing so, remember to shower and change into a clean uniform.


Use a decontamination solution to eliminate carcinogens from turnout gear

Soap and water are good first steps, but a more thorough solution like decontaminants is needed to remove all carcinogens from your gear.


Ensure that your department has enough specialized washing machines

Turnout gear needs to be laundered as soon as possible, and with specialized washing machines. While it would be ideal to provide your firefighters with two sets of turnout gear, making sure that your department has enough washers and dryers should be a priority in protecting your firefighters against cancer.


Implement a thorough cancer prevention education training

Educating your department on the steps they can take to reduce the risk of cancer is crucial. Check out these best practices outlined in the Lavender Ribbon Report as a useful resource.

Firefighting work is already dangerous; let’s take the necessary measures to remove any additional threats like cancer. Is your department taking proactive steps against this risk? Let us know in the comments below!

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