Firefighters have much higher rates of cancer than the residents they serve due to exposure to carcinogens on the fireground and in the firehouse. Residential fires have more carcinogens released due to materials common in homes today, including plastics and synthetics. Firefighters are also repeatedly exposed to diesel exhaust and residual soot at the firehouse. Firefighters can unknowingly pass them on to their fellow firefighters and loved ones.
Preventing occupational cancer in the fire service
The first step to preventing cancer is changing the culture in the firehouse. Soot laden turnout gear and helmets can no longer be viewed as a badges of honor. Here are some protective measures that firefighters can take immediately to help protect themselves from carcinogens and toxins. After every exposure to smoke:
- Use your SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) during overhaul.
- Wipe your skin – especially the neck and face - with Wet Naps (R) /baby wipes as soon as possible after the exposure.
- Gross decontamination of gear and equipment using a small hose spray.
- Wash hands and get a clean hood and pair of gloves ASAP.
- Shower after the fire and change clothes.
- Incident commanders: keep mutual aid coverage or call backs until the duty shift completes this.
- Wash structural gear/PPE – to include hoods, gloves, and helmet liners after each fire in an approved gear extractor or using a qualified contract service. Air dry gear or use only an approved gear dryer.
- Thoroughly clean/decontaminate helmet (inside and out), boots, SCBA, radios, hand lights, etc.
- Thoroughly clean/decontaminate the inside of the cab and riding positions on the fire apparatus.
- Have a vigorous athletic workout within 12 hours; this will help rid the body of contaminants.
- Utilize diesel exhaust extraction systems.
- Store PPE away from apparatus floor.
- Transport structural gear/PPE in a personal vehicle only if contained in a vapor tight bag and only in the trunk of a car or bed of a truck, never in the passenger compartment.
- Get an annual comprehensive firefighter physical exam with emphasis on cancer screening.
- Avoid cross contamination always. Do not allow no structural gear/PPE in the living quarters - ever.
Cancer awareness training
Cancer in firefighters is not inevitable. There are protective actions that all ranks of the fire service can take to decrease the risk of cancer by increasing awareness and enhancing protection. The Massachusetts Fire Academy (MFA) offers a course developed by the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) called Taking Action Against Cancer in the Fire Service. This 3-hour course is offered to firefighters on duty in their department. You can request one of these courses by going to our request a course form. Our coordinator will assign an instructor in your area to contact you and set up a time and date to come out and teach this important informational course that provides three (3) OEMS credits, two (2) FCC credits, and one (1) FPO credit.
The Massachusetts Fire Academy is teaming up with a dermatologist with SPOTme® to provide free cancer screenings and a dental hygienist to conduct oral cancer screenings to firefighters in Massachusetts. If you are interested in any offerings we have scheduled, please check our LMS for screenings in your area (as we are adding offerings all the time) by searching our catalog for "SCA-Skin Cancer Screening-Taking Action Against Cancer in the Fire Service."
Additional Resources for
In 2013, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) assembled a team of experts to develop a white paper to address firefighter cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and long term implications for the firefighter, firefighters’ family, co-workers, and community. They learned that the research demonstrated that firefighters are at greater risk than the general public for the following types of cancer: Testicular cancer (2.02 times greater risk), Multiple myeloma (1.53 times greater risk), Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (1.51 times greater risk), Skin Cancer (1.39 times greater risk), Malignant melanoma (1.31 times greater risk), Prostate cancer (1.28 times greater risk), Brain cancer (1.31 times greater risk), Colon cancer (1.21 times greater risk), Leukemia (1.14 times greater risk), and Breast cancer in women (preliminary study results from the San Francisco Fire Department). These are very alarming statistics that illustrate that cancer is an under recognized and true threat to the health and safety of firefighters.