Cancer Risk for Firefighters Grows

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cancerthumbnail VERMONT - Firefighters have a dangerous job, but for years they went about their daily routine completely unaware of a deadly risk. 


A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that firefighters have a greater risk of being diagnosed with certain types of cancers, including digestive, oral, respiratory, and urinary cancers as well malignant mesothelioma.

The main risk to firefighters occurs during and after fighting a fire, during a fire many carcinogens are released into the air, which firefighters breathe. According to Lyndonville Fire Lieutenant Patrick McLaughlin, who is also an Assistant State Fire Marshal, it’s a risk that has only increased as building materials become more toxic,” said McLaughlin. “Today we're seeing a lot more composites and plastics or a mixture of both wood and plastics and the plastics create a carcinogen that becomes airborne."

Firefighters are also exposed to carcinogens through soot, which accumulates on their gear during a fire. In order decrease the risk to firefighters, many area fire departments including the Saint Johnsbury Fire Department make sure to thoroughly decontaminate firefighters after every fire. The Saint Johnsbury Fire Department issues their members two sets of gear, which allow them to wash every firefighter's set of gear in a specialty washer after a fire. 

However that is a luxury that not every fire department can afford. McLaughlin believe’s the culture of firefighting has to change. “Changing the way you do something in the fire service even if its for the better takes time and unfortunately we're going to see more of our brothers and sisters die of cancer before we hopefully make some big changes." McLaughlin said.

While there have been several studies as to the risk of cancer for firefighters, a lot is still unknown, including how many firefighters have died from cancer as a result of their service. New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez has introduced the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2017 to Congress. The act would create a voluntary registry to track cancer cases among firefighters. When introducing a similar bill last year Menendez said "it is our hope that by studying quantifying and understanding the risk for firefighters that we can develop better methods of protection from prevention of cancer to one day finding a cure.

In order to help Firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer several states, including Vermont, have passed presumption laws. These laws allow firefighters to receive workers compensation, if they’re diagnosed with cancer due to a result of exposure during their service. 

The law however is limited and does not cover all types of cancer. “The disabling cancer shall be limited to leukemia, lymphoma, or multiple myeloma, and cancers originating in the bladder, brain, colon, gastrointestinal tract, kidney, liver, pancreas, skin, or testicles." There are other restrictions to the law, a firefighter must have served for at least five years, be under the age of 65 and be tobacco free for at least 10 years.