There are many reasons firefighting is known as 1 of the world’s most dangerous occupations. Several, of course, concern immediate health risks from smoke inhalation such as irritation of air passages and acid reflux-type symptoms. But what some may not be aware of are the long-term, sometimes deadly, health risks presented by exposure to hazardous substances.
In fact, firefighters suffer from one of the highest rates of malignant mesothelioma, a disease linked exclusively to asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma, a rare but lethal cancer that most often attacks the pleural lining of the lungs, has plagued twice as many firefighters as the general population for decades. This, say supporters of a newly proposed Firefighter Cancer Registry Act, is what we urgently need to tackle.
Act Introduced to Improve Monitoring of Cancer
On any given day, a firefighter may be exposed to a paralyzing cocktail of toxic chemicals: diesel engine exhaust, soot, chloroform, benzene, and asbestos are only a few. But all of them are believed to increase cancer risk. In 2010, from the largest ever study of U.S. firefighters, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found among participants a 9 percent higher rate of cancer diagnoses and 14 percent more cancer-related deaths than the average American.
Until now, lack of visibility into this problem was a large part of its endurance. The CDC has thus far lacked the funding to acquire enough data about diseases like mesothelioma and firefighters, which has limited potentially vital studies that would provide a better understanding of these trends. In response, Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN) and other sponsors have proposed federal legislation to provide the resources needed for better collection and analysis of these data.
Hollingsworth hosted a roundtable meeting this month with local fire service members in Jeffersonville to discuss the bill, as well as other occupational issues such as mental health and stress.
“We need to make sure that we do everything we can to support them, increase awareness about this, and do research into what we can do to prevent a spike in cancer for those who are fighting fires,” he said. “I hope this will be the beginning of a dialogue … about how we can continue to support, at every single level and every single way, those who put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of the rest of us.”
The World Is Finally Waking Up
The bill, which currently awaits approval by the House of Representatives, would form a specialized, voluntary registry for firefighters diagnosed with cancer. To collect information for the registry, the CDC would incorporate questions about the number and type of fire incidents attended by registrants, for example.
Still, this isn’t the only effort being made to help firefighters. Elsewhere, in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is in discussions about expanding health benefits to cover job-related cancer treatment costs for the state’s 110,000 volunteer firefighters.
“We’re working every day to try to encourage the governor to sign this cancer bill,” said Kenneth Pienkowski, president of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, which signed 6,000 petitions in support of the measure.
How Could the Registry Help?
If realized, these legislative efforts could make a profound difference to the firefighting community, and the brave men and women who put their lives on the line in more ways than 1 – in most cases, without even knowing it. For many years, firefighters weren’t warned about or protected against exposure to carcinogens like asbestos, though fire departments themselves were well aware of the consequences.
“We’re not fighting fires in wood and paper any longer,” said Joe Hurt, president of the Jeffersonville Firefighters’ International Association of Fire Fighters Local 558. “Everything that comes off these fires is a carcinogen. It’s getting in our skin, it’s getting in our clothes, it’s getting in our gear, coming back into our firehouses.”
As such, and because of limited understanding about epidemiological cancer among firefighters, mesothelioma has been unfairly associated with firefighters for too long.
Local fire departments are now doing all they can to eliminate risks through, for example, stricter enforcement of protective wear. But the hope is, by improving research outcomes, that the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2017 could do much more to weaken the binding links between firefighters and cancer nationwide.