Cancer in the Fire Service
A cancer diagnosis is always tragic, and tragedy has been mounting among volunteer firefighters. New York State is home to over 110,000 volunteer firefighters who sacrifice their time, their safety and, too often, their health in service to their communities.
Firefighters are significantly more likely to develop many types of cancer than the general population largely due to the high levels of carcinogens and other toxins found in burning buildings and hazardous environments. Firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population, according to research by the CDC/National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH). The cancers mostly responsible for this higher risk were respiratory (lung, mesothelioma), GI (oral cavity, esophageal, large intestine), and kidney.Watch this video depicting the real struggles volunteer firefighters are having with cancer.
Effective education and better maintenance of equipment are essential to lowering the risk of cancer. The Lavender Ribbon Report by the National Volunteer Fire Council and International Fire Chiefs Association Volunteer & Combination Officers Section outlines 11 steps the fire service can take to reduce cancer risk:
- Full protective equipment (PPE) must be worn throughout the entire incident, including SCBA during salvage and overhaul.
- A second hood should be provided to all entry-certified personnel in the department.
- Following exit from the IDLH, and while still on air, you should begin immediate gross decon of PPE using soap water and a brush, if weather conditions allow. PPE should then be placed into a sealed plastic bag and placed in an exterior compartment of the rig, or if responding in POVs, placed in a large storage tote, thus keeping the off-gassing PPE away from passengers and self.
- After completion of gross decon procedures as discussed above, and while still on scene, the exposed areas of the body (neck, face, arms and hands) should be wiped off immediately using wipes, which must be carried on all apparatus. Use the wipes to remove as much soot as possible from head, neck, jaw, throat, underarms and hands immediately.
- Change your clothes and wash them after exposure to products of combustion or other contaminants. Do this as soon as possible and/or isolate in a trash bag until washing is available.
- Shower as soon as possible after being exposed to products of combustion or other contaminants. “Shower within the Hour”
- PPE, especially turnout pants, must be prohibited in areas outside the apparatus floor (i.e. kitchen, sleeping areas, etc.) and never in the household.
- Wipes, or soap and water, should also be used to decontaminate and clean apparatus seats, SCBA and interior crew area regularly, especially after incidents where personnel were exposed to products of combustion.
- Get an annual physical, as early detection is the key to survival.
- Tobacco products of any variety, including dip and e-cigarettes should never be used at anytime on or off duty.
- Fully document ALL fire or chemical exposures on incident reports and personal exposure reports.