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Smoke, Chemicals Make Cancer Leading Cause Of Death For On-Duty Firefighters

Samuel King, Jr.

Firefighters from around the state are participating in cancer-prevention training this week in Indianapolis. 

Firefighters are regularly exposed to cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde and poly-aromatic hydrocarbons. And cancer is their leading cause of death. Indianapolis firefighter and cancer survivor Mike Estridge says the health threat was underestimated for years.  

“We knew that there was a problem but we didn’t know how bad the problem was,” he says.

The International Association of Fire Fighters started tracking causes of death in 2002. It reports that 60 percent of firefighters die of cancer. And the number could even be higher, because the methods for tracking cause of death are incomplete. 

Estridge says they’re learning more about the risks.

“While we’re sweating underneath in this hot environment, this smoke is permeating our fire gear, it’s getting into our skin, it’s getting into our bodies that way,” he says.

The Firefighter Cancer Support Network, FCSN, led the training in Indianapolis and gave firefighters from around the state information about the impact of occupational cancer.

FCSN’s Keith Tyson says research shows firefighters have a greater likelihood of developing certain kinds of cancer—“things like prostate cancer, testicular cancer, multiple melanoma, non-Hodgkins, certainly lung cancer is big issue”—but they can protect themselves from chemical exposure if they know to take immediate action.

“You go outside of the burning building you take a quick rinse of your gear, you put the gear into a bag, you put it back on the truck, you go back to the station, you take a shower, you wash the gear,” he explains.  

FCSN is also pushing for a national registry that would provide a more complete picture of the health threat.  

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