Considering firefighters save lives each and every year — and, often, for very little pay — it’s no wonder they are dubbed modern-day heroes. But a competitive salary isn’t the only thing a firefighter must sacrifice when entering into the profession; they must also sacrifice good health.
Firefighting is one of America’s most commonly associated professions with cancer. Every day, thousands of firefighters risk their lives not just battling fires, but exposing themselves to hazards that cause deadly diseases. According to one New York senator – who supports the idea that firefighters are more likely than most to contract cancer – it’s time for Congress to step up and do something.
In front of a firehouse in Rochester last week, Senator Charles Schumer announced his proposal to initiate a national data registry for firefighters with cancer. By passing legislation to track detailed information on the cancer rates of U.S. firefighters, Schumer hopes to create an invaluable resource for cancer research that can help shed light on the effects of toxic materials, substances, and chemicals.
If the initiative were to gain congressional support and pass, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would be charged with collecting voluntary (and anonymous) data from firefighters who have cancer. This data would detail not only where the firefighter worked, but also which fires he or she combatted. It may sound fairly simple, but with this information, researchers will be able to better understand how certain substances and chemicals within buildings cause firefighters to get cancer at such alarming rates.
The Risks of Fighting Modern Fires
Many scientists agree that several types of cancer affect firefighters more than they do any other profession. Among these is mesothelioma, a rare and extremely deadly cancer that develops exclusively from exposure to asbestos. When it comes mesothelioma, rates among firefighters are at least twice as high as the general population. Research has also suggested an increased risk of death from testicular, stomach, multiple myeloma, and brain cancers.
With the number of electronics, plastics, flame-retardants, and synthetic fibers in the average American home today, it’s at least somewhat clear where these increased risks are coming from. The “modern fire” releases so many toxins and chemicals into the air that the smoke is just as dangerous — if not more so — than the fire itself.
“Our brave firefighters in Rochester and across Monroe County are on the frontlines, risking their lives to protect our communities,” said Senator Schumer when he announced his new initiative. “And now with the ubiquitous presence of complex chemicals in our furniture, clothes and goods, they are too often exposed to a caustic brew of toxins when fighting fires.”
Unfortunately, exposure to these chemicals is hard to avoid because the toxins linger even after the fire has been extinguished. Such toxins can actually cling onto firefighters’ protective clothing, and therefore they can easily be transferred into the air, too, once the firefighters have returned to their stations.
Making the Case for Better Research
Although studies have shown firefighters’ increased risk of cancer, there has never been a long-term registry in place to track the many connections that firefighting has to cancer. Senator Schumer argues that monitoring these cancer incidences is crucial for providing accurate information that can help to treat, and hopefully prevent, cancer developed through firefighting.
Take financial support, for example. Firefighters who live in 1 of the 16 states that don’t provide worker’s compensation struggle gravely to fund their own cancer treatments. This is because, in these states, officials require proof that firefighters got their cancer through work before they even consider the supporting them financially. Such support hardly ever comes, because it can be incredibly difficult to trace someone’s cancer back to its exact inciting incident. A CDC report released last year states that “it is widely accepted that firefighters are potentially exposed to a number of known or suspected human carcinogens; yet the risk of cancer in the fire service is still poorly understood.”
The great hope is that the new proposed legislation would put an end to any inconsistency. “A national registry of firefighters diagnosed with cancer would provide the Centers for Disease Control with better information, which would lead to better medical care for our nation’s first responders,” said Rochester Fire Chief John Schreiber, who joined Senator Charles in the launch of his groundbreaking effort. “This registry could be an amazing step to protect all firefighters and their families from the devastation of a cancer diagnosis.”
Firefighters Protect Us, and Need the Same Protection in Return
Although some states have yet to pass worker’s compensation legislature, most firefighters are lucky to have the support of families, friends, and independent organizations to fall back on. Senator Charles Schumer’s registry promises to be the latest edition to a slowly growing safety net of foundations like the Firefighter Cancer Foundation (FCF) and the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN).
However, these organizations can never come close to covering all of the hospital bills that cancer victims and their families face. Only state funding can. Insights from the Schumer’s proposed data registry aim to change the state’s attitude toward cancer and its undeniable correlation to firefighting — thus saving countless lives.
Perhaps Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said it best: “America’s firefighters risk their lives every day to protect the lives and property of our nation’s citizens and visitors, and our nation’s leaders should do everything they can to protect our firefighters.”