Published Monday, September 24, 2012
| From the November 2012 Issue of FireRescue
Dear Nozzlehead: Over the years, I’ve read about cancer in our profession. Honestly, I never gave it much thought. Firefighting is what we do, and taking in some smoke is just a part of it—at least that had been my perspective until one of our firefighters was diagnosed with leukemia and died within 90 days of diagnosis. It was a huge shock to all of us. Sadness permeated our firehouse. Several of us are still having a very hard time dealing with the loss of our friend and brother. Of course, a few mutts are incredibly telling us to “suck it up”; however, this loss has made me and a few others start thinking about cancer and what, if anything, we can do about it. I’d like to get your thoughts on prevention—or whatever you have on your mind related to this issue. Is cancer really THAT MUCH of an issue in the fire service for the old guys?
—Sad in the Bay Area
Cancer in our business? Seriously?! We risk our lives fighting structure fires EVERY SINGLE DAY! That’s the biggest risk. Oh, wait, let me try this again: We face danger at every step! Nah, that’s not it either. Damn, this isn’t working out very well.
How about this: The GREATEST risk we take as firefighters is exposing ourselves to cancer-causing agents. That’s it. Big statement. Want me to back it up? Glad to.
With a show of hands, how many of you personally knew a firefighter who was killed in the line of duty? OK, now, how many of you personally knew or know a firefighter who dealt with or is dealing with cancer? Whoa. OK, put your hands down.
Cancer is a big deal. Nearly every firefighter knows another firefighter who has faced cancer—and that’s because WE GET CANCER!
University of Cincinnati environmental health researchers Dr. Grace LeMasters and James Lockey looked at studies involving 110,000 firefighters over several decades. They found that rates for testicular cancer in firefighters are 100% higher than the general population. Their work also reveals that firefighters are 50% more likely to fall ill with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma. The risk to firefighters for prostate cancer increases by 28%. The stats go on and on.
We’re trained to wear our personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect us from being burned or taking in smoke while inside a burning building, but there’s much more to the firefighter cancer issue. According to Dr. Lockey, we’re still very susceptible to a dangerous “soup of exposures” from the absorbed smoke (through our PPE) and even after the emergency is over while we stand outside a fire, inhaling smoke, or even while inside the station if diesel fumes aren’t properly ventilated. Another big concern is the soot we carry back with us on our faces, hands and under our gear. Dr. Lockey says soot is a Group 1 carcinogen, a top cancer-causing agent that gets sucked into the body through the skin, particularly when firefighters sweat and their pores are open.
Dr. LeMasters explains the issue further: “We are concerned that though firefighters may have respiratory protection, they really aren’t getting adequate protection from absorption of these compounds through their skin. A lot of firefighters have told me that they come back from fires covered in soot. Oftentimes they are too tired to shower. They will just fall into their beds and go to sleep.”
Don’t believe it? OK, no show of hands this time; just think to yourself—and please, no cheating. After your last working fire, when you took a shower, you dropped the soap. Wait, let’s forget that for a second and get back to the point. What did you smell in that steamy shower? Exactly. You smelled smoke—smoke that entered your body when you were operating IN the smoke on that last fire. The poison goes in and can be smelled when you get into the hot shower. Makes you wonder what’s still inside little ol’ you. As my grandson says, “It not good.”
So what are the answers? Get regular check-ups. Let your doctor and fire service standards determine what regular is. Wear full PPE. And chiefs, if you don’t have a ZERO TOLERANCE policy related to the non-use of SCBA, hurry up and get your act together. Seriously. It’s 2012. ZERO tolerance for smoke inhalation. Never ever, ever breathe that crap. Wash all PPE (including hoods) after every applicable run. You get the idea. Take this very seriously, especially if you’re young because that’s when the “stuff” often starts growing—when we all feel invincible.
You mentioned the sadness in the firehouse. That’s also a big deal. I’ve covered trying to prevent cancer, but I don’t want to sound naïve. Cancer isn’t always avoidable. There are wonderful, wonderful people who are healthy one minute—even went for their physicals and “all was good”—and then the next thing you know, they are tired or have some minor symptom … and it’s cancer. It can strike fast—very fast. And as hard as they may fight, it’s over in a flash, with broken hearts looking for answers. Who knows what the answers are. We each have to figure out that part for ourselves—and usually with the help of others. Time is a good healer—or at least it helps us figure out where this deep and profound sadness eventually fits into our lives. But it does take time, and everyone gets through it a little differently.
Death and sadness are extremely personal, and no one is qualified to judge anyone else on the grieving stuff. It just takes time and sometimes even the help of a professional, not to mention our peers and friends. With just a little help from our friends, we can get by and figure out where it all fits, with wonderful memories serving as the foundation of sustained peace. That’s one thing no one can ever take from us.
Rest in peace, RAF.
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