A new study has just begun in Toledo on the relationship between firefighters and cancer.
For years, firefighters have suffered disproportionately from certain types of cancer and cancer-related deaths. Yet researchers admit they still lack understanding of this increased risk and its exact causes. This study, which will take 1 year to complete, won’t provide the answers right away – but could have important consequences, depending on the results.
Investigations into Baffling Cancer Risks Continue
The study, conducted by Ohio State University, includes 35 participants throughout the state. These firefighters – some with cancer, some without – have agreed to give skin, urine, and blood samples. Six will be tested after battling a fire. From the results, researchers hope to better understand the impact of occupational exposures on unique cancer risks.
This approach follows 2 major studies in recent years: a 3-year investigation into reducing firefighters’ exposure to carcinogens beginning last year and, more notably, a breakthrough study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This study between 2010 and 2015 found higher-than-usual rates of cancer among 30,000 firefighters.
Among these cancer types were digestive, respiratory, oral, and urinary cancers, but rates were particularly disturbing for mesothelioma, a cancer caused exclusively by asbestos. Results showed firefighters are at least twice as likely to develop mesothelioma as the general population, as a result of asbestos inhalation while fighting fires.
What Makes This Study Different?
Although we can now pinpoint asbestos exposure as a significant risk factor, Ohio State University researchers say this study will further clarify the long-term effects of exposures, how they impact cancer risk, and what can be done to prevent them. Protection from cancer hazards is still a new phenomenon for fire departments.
“It’s such a cultural change from when we came on,” said Private Sterling Rahe, Toledo Fire Department spokesman. “That whole thought process of it was always a badge of honor to have the dirtiest gear or the dirtiest helmet – that has shifted in a positive fashion to the other end of the spectrum.”
Fire department leaders are now evaluating their safety practices and instructing firefighters accordingly – for example, to wash their hands before using the restroom use after a call, or to shower and wash turnout gear after every fire. Meanwhile, this study will help uncover exactly how toxins affect their bodies, said Toledo Fire Department Captain Matt Brixey.
“This is the first study in the state of Ohio that is looking for certain common compounds that are found in everyday items that will turn up in fires and stations and buildings. So they are actually able to isolate if these compounds are found in our blood before and after a fire.”
What about Firefighters Already Affected by Cancer?
The science behind these studies is complex, but results turn up the same stark truth: Firefighters are being poisoned.
It’s only because the dangers of these toxins were once hidden by their manufacturers that so many firefighters suffer the often fatal consequences today.
Firefighters’ health issues have become so common, in fact, that most states have implemented cancer presumptive laws that assume firefighters’ cancers to be work-related and award worker’s compensation. But 16 states (including Ohio) still haven’t acknowledged the clear link between firefighters and cancer for the same reason as manufacturers of asbestos and other chemicals: Cost.
In these states, firefighters are forced to prove their cancer developed from occupational exposure. Researchers are tasked with providing this evidence. Ohio State University’s findings could not only ensure their state starts paying for compensation, but could make significant steps to avoid any more unjust, life-threatening health concerns in the future.
“For us older guys who have been around a while, we can’t take back the things we’ve already done,” said Toledo Fire Department Captain Matt Brixey. We just have to get better on this point forward and move on and keep getting better. That’s why this study is going to be so huge because the new people coming on will benefit from this.”