According to the Center for Disease Control, the leading cause of death for Americans is heart disease but that is not the case for firefighters anymore. Running towards a burning building is the risk that comes to mind when thinking about the daily activities for firefighters but the true risk of the job could appear years later. The International Association of Firefighters reports the leading cause of death is cancer. In fact, firefighters have higher rates of cancer than the rest of us, upwards of 68% higher than the general population for some types of the disease and accounts for double the reported cases of mesothelioma, a cancer which targets the thin tissue that covers internal organs. The reported statistics vary based on the study, source and type of cancer which was concerning to Robert D. Daniels, PhD. CHP. who lead the largest study of U.S. Firefighters in partnership with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in 2010.

This study shows firefighters have a 9% increased rate for being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% higher rate of dying from cancer. However, when looking at specific types of cancer, the rates for firefighters rise steeply; specifically regarding respiratory, digestive and skin. Along with confirming the statistics being double for mesothelioma, they are also double for testicular cancer, 1.28 greater for prostate cancer and 1.21 greater for colon cancer. The study showed the rate of multiple myeloma was increased 1.53 times greater risk for firefighters, 1.39 times for skin cancer and 1.51 greater with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The fire industry recognizes the long-term risk factor and has made significant changes to aid in the protection of carcinogens from the men and woman that protect us. A breathing apparatus (BA) is always available when responding to a building or vehicle fire and manufactures of gear have made many necessary changes to reduce exposure to the body. Research has determined that not only respiratory absorption of carcinogens but also through skin absorption can lead to firefighting related cancers which include particles left on gear after the fire scene.

Proudly wearing black soot on your gear used to be a sign of experience, something to be respected; now, its standard protocol for most departments to immediately clean gear after each fire, not to be worn twice. Some firehouses have specialized washing machines and/ or a second set of gear to enforce policy. When dissecting the process of an emergency call, a firefighter puts on clean gear, loads into a clean truck – the first time – fights the fire and returns back to the station where they clean their body and gear; but what about transferring toxins to the soft surfaces in the cab of the engine?

Sutphen released Clean Cab Initiative to help prevent cancer from firefighting at FDIC 2018. On display was the newest truck for West Palm Beach, FL. with a custom cab; a clean cab. You won’t find any impermeable material inside this cab; in fact, it can be completely cleaned with using a garden hose. Diamond plated floors, black textured interior and a plastic cab roof rather than the usual cloth lays the groundwork. The seats are lined with Dura Wear making them resistant to absorbing fluids and the seat covers are removable having the capability to be washed. A HEPA filter for the A/C and defrost allows cleaner breathable air and external storage for gear and SCBA reduces the toxins inside the cab. The firefighters union states the plastics and synthetics used in building materials are a major source of toxins related to the increased rate of cancer among first responders. Eliminating these materials, implementing improved gear and better utilization of gear and mandating clean cabs are clear and proven ways to protect those who protect us. But that is not so easy. It would cost money to change policy and practices, provide a safer workplace and even to cover the cost of presumptive illness through health insurance plans which may be the reason agencies that employ firefighters are reluctant to expose the dangers of the job.

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