Firefighters trained to save lives are struggling to save their own as concern grows over elevated cancer risk and mortality rates.
In late June, San Antonio lost its second firefighter to cancer in 2016. Todd “Woody” Woodcock was 43-years-old when he lost his battle to leukemia, prompting Fire Chief Charles Hood to speak out against what he calls “occupational cancer.”
Woodcock’s death sent shockwaves through the department as well as to the families of the 18 San Antonio firefighters who have open worker’s compensation claims with the city due to cancer diagnoses.
“You don’t ever want to think, what happens if I’m next?” said Natalie, a mother of five whose husband is a San Antonio firefighter battling multiple myeloma. “It’s hard to think every holiday that that might be the last one you’re celebrating with them, especially if you have young children.”
Natalie, who declined to give her last name to protect her husband’s identity, said that her husband was diagnosed after he started experiencing weakness and easily-broken bones.
According to the city, San Antonio firefighters have similar cancer rates to police and civilian city employees. But sweeping national studies show a very clear link between certain cancers and exposure to diesel fumes and burning chemicals.
A 2006 University of Cincinnati study found a link between those hazards and multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, and testicular cancer. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health looked at more than 30,000 firefighters from 1950 to 2010 and found that they have more than double the risk of developing mesothelioma, a deadly cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
Dr. Steve Kalter, an oncologist at San Antonio’s START Center for Cancer Care, said that the correlation is too strong to ignore.
“They call it dying with your boots off,” Dr. Kalter said. “Sixty percent of firefighters die from malignancy.”
According to Curtis Dunn with the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, many methods of exposure are easily preventable. The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association says they’re typically given one or two bunkers, or firefighting uniforms. Those bunkers can only be cleaned using a powerful machine called an extractor.
As a result, San Antonio firefighters say that they often go anywhere from a week to two months with a uniform that is blackened and thick with cancer-causing chemicals.
Dunn said that many departments across Texas have also invested in equipment to reduce exposure to diesel exhaust. Exhaust capture systems have been used in cities like Dallas, Arlington, and Forth Worth to intercept diesel exhaust from fire engines before it can seep into living quarters inside the station.
“You might not fight a fire every day. You might not fight a fire for a month, but every day that fire truck starts up,” said Dunn, who estimates that 90 percent of diesel carcinogens can be removed using exhaust capture.
For four years, the San Antonio Fire Department has requested that the city include exhaust capture systems and new bunkers on its budget.
The requests were never included, but city spokesman Jeff Coyle said that will change this year.
“The proposed budget the city manager will present to the council and mayor in mid-August will have funding for exhaust removal systems in all fire stations that don’t have them already.”
According to Coyle, the soon-to-be-proposed budget will include $1.8 million for exhaust capture systems in 46 older fire stations. The city already has seven new stations with that technology included.
The city is also expected to include money for new bunkers to minimize skin exposure through dirty gear. City officials have not specified how much money or how many bunkers will be purchased.
“It’s not a small amount of money,” said Coyle, who noted that the budget will appear before the council for a vote in September. “We’ve found a way to make it work.”
Natalie said that it’s a small price to pay to spare other families from the very real fear of raising children without a parent.
She said that her husband’s cancer does not have a cure.
“You don’t want to explain that to your older children, much less your little children,” Natalie said. “Nobody wants to have their 2-year-old to have to learn what cancer really is and how it affects their family.”