It’s the most dangerous and unrecognized threat facing firefighters today.
Firefighters face many risks during their jobs, but, surprisingly, the most dangerous part of running into a burning building isn’t the flames, it’s the smoke. It billows off furniture, appliances and carpets in toxic waves of cancer-causing fumes. That’s how about 60 percent of career firefighters will die, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters. Cancer has become the number one cause of death for firefighters around the country.
Eugene Hull has been with Georgia’s Columbus fire department for 34 years. A diagnosis of synovial sarcoma led to the amputation of Hull’s right arm ten years ago.
“I remember going home, riding down the road and I was crying like a baby and my wife asked me, what’s wrong with you, and I said that’s a part of my life that I’ll never do again,” said Hull.
Hull was able to return to work in a new roll: training the next generation of firefighters.
Part of that training now includes protecting themselves from what is believed to be the biggest threat against their lives: cancer.
“We used to fight fire with no mask. You know, a badge of honor was to have dirty turnout gear, and we’ve learned now that, you know, it’s important that we wear our mask and it’s important that we clean our gear and we stay clean,” said Hull.
A recent study found that roughly 20 percent of firefighters developed cancer. The rate for the general U.S. population is only eight percent.
“The fires of today are different than they were 30 years ago. It burns a lot hotter, a lot quicker and it gives off a lot more toxic smoke.”
Flame retardants alone double the amount of smoke and release ten times more toxic gases.
Retired firefighter James Horn shows the innovative ways to reduce the potential risk of occupational cancer.
The changes come too late for Horn and his brother, Michael. They both developed cancer. Horn developed sarcoma. Michael developed malignant melanoma, which ultimately killed him. It’s a story that has touched just about every fire department in America.
34 U.S. states now have laws presuming that if a firefighter gets cancer, it was likely caused by the job. In most cases that makes them eligible for workers compensation and protects them from termination while on disability leave. In the other 16 states, often the argument points to the lack of studies that directly connect cancer with a firefighter’s job. Most studies did not take into account other factors like smoking and alcohol consumption and many states argue they don’t have the money to support a cancer presumption law which could run tens of millions of dollars in worker’s compensation benefits.
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