Monday, September 8, 2008

Cancer risk for firefighters

We are not aware of any specific study that has been completed on the occurrence of cancer among wildland firefighters, but there is enough data out there about structural firefighters that make this a major concern.  Wildfire Today has covered this before, but the Spokane Spokesman-Review has a new disturbing article about a local cancer cluster.  Here is an excerpt. 
Doug Bacon missed the funeral of a fellow Spokane firefighter because the 59-year-old was in treatment for throat cancer – the same illness that had just killed his friend and co-worker.

A third Spokane firefighter who joined the department with Bacon in the 1970s also has been diagnosed with throat cancer.

"It's to the point we're trying to figure out which fire we were all on together," said Bacon, who survived his cancer and returned to the job in mid-2006. "I've got attitude. I fought it."

Firefighters are at least twice as likely to get cancer as the average person because of exposure to toxins emitted in fires, such as benzene, asbestos and cyanide, studies say. More firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer in the past two years than in the previous 10 years, according to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network and recent studies.

When Bacon was diagnosed with cancer in January 2006, he said he just looked at the doctor and said: "You're kidding me." He was unaware at the time that firefighters were more susceptible to the disease. Now, he's constantly warning young firefighters of the dangers and telling them to keep their masks on – even after the fire's out.

During July, Spokane area firefighters fought blazes nearly every day, including the massive Valley View wildfire, and two three-alarm fires – The Ugly Duck and Joel building.

Despite wearing protective gear, some walked away from those blazes hacking and coughing. Authorities say asbestos – a cancer-causing agent often found in old building materials – was found in the Joel building.

Research is still being done to determine what level of exposure leads to cancer in firefighters, officials say. Meanwhile, the illness has become a primary concern for the profession.

"Finally we are taking our blinders off when it comes to cancer," said Michael Dubron, founder and president of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. Dubron is a cancer survivor and Los Angles firefighter. "With our organization, we are trying to be proactive, such as reducing unnecessary exposure. No longer is it cool to run around with soot-covered uniforms and equipment."

The soot contains many of the same toxins firefighters are exposed to during a blaze, officials say.
Something Wildfire Today wrote on May 28 is worth repeating:
In Canada, the British Columbia government recognizes as an occupational hazard for firefighters the following diseases:
  • testicular cancer
  • lung cancer in non-smokers
  • brain cancer
  • bladder cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • ureter cancer
  • colorectal cancer
  • non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  • leukemia
This means that full-time, volunteer, part-time, and paid on-call firefighters suffering from the diseases will qualify for worker's compensation and benefits, without having to prove individually that the diseases are linked to their jobs.
There is not a lot that wildland firefighters can do to avoid breathing the byproducts of combustion.  There is no such thing as a breathing apparatus containing clean air that can be carried for a 16-hour shift.  

The various filter masks that are sometimes bought by wildland firefighters do nothing except filter out some of the larger particles, sticks, and rocks.  The microscopic smoke particulates are so small, that if one were near the ceiling in a room with still air, it would take about eight hours to fall to the floor.  And the masks do nothing to remove the various toxic gasses and other contaminates.  

We need to establish a system to track the long term health and cancer occurence within the wildland firefighter community.

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