Ken. Fire Departments Working to Reduce Cancer Risks
Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.
June 17—Fire departments have always tried to reduce the on-the-job risks to firefighters by adding and improving protective gear, providing training on advances in the fire sciences and investing in lifesaving devices such as alarms that sound when a firefighter hasn't moved for more than 20 seconds.
The self-contained breathing apparatus, or "air pack," is a major piece of safety equipment, protecting firefighters from being knocked down immediately by incapacitating smoke and preventing them from breathing carcinogens released in fires. But air packs have been shown to not be enough to protect firefighters from cancer.
Firefighters have higher rates of contracting cancers, and higher cancer deaths, than the general population. According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, cancer caused 61 percent of all line-of-duty firefighter deaths between January 2002 and March 2017.
"Researchers started discovering, within the last 20 years, that the amount of cancer in firefighters seemed to be rising," Owensboro Fire Department Chief Steve Mitchell said. "A lot of research was done ... They found firefighters had 14 to 30 percent higher cancer rates than the general public."
The risk of breathing in toxins from fire smoke was mitigated when firefighters started using air packs. But changes in how homes are built, and how people furnish them, has greatly increased the risk of firefighters being exposed to carcinogens, and not just by breathing in fumes.
"These chemicals weren't getting to them through air packs," said Mack Cann, of the state Division of Air Quality who is part of a research team into firefighter cancer rates at Western Kentucky University.
"It was absorbing through their skin," or firefighters were breathing toxins when they removed their air packs after a fire was extinguished, Cann said.
To understand why modern homes are more toxic than homes of the past, look around at the materials and items inside your own home. Most likely, you'll see a lot of plastic.
"They found the synthetics everything is made of now, when it burns, it puts out a high (concentration) of carcinogens," Mitchell said. "The belief always was firefighters got sick through breathing (toxins), so with the air pack, that shouldn't happen."
But there were other methods of exposure. Researchers discovered firefighters were absorbing particles through their skin.
For example, firefighters who took off their gloves were absorbing dangerous particles through the skin on their hands. Also, the protective hoods they wore over their heads and necks were found to be ineffective in blocking particles, and toxins were being absorbed through their necks.
That led to the development of hoods that are believed to block particles. As you might imagine, the new hoods are more expensive than what firefighters were using previously.
"The new hoods cost $100," compared to $10 to $15 for the hoods that didn't block particles, Mitchell said.
Each of the department's 85 firefighters needs two of the new hoods, he said. In all, OFD plans to spend $17,000 in additional funds over a two-year period.
"That's totally cancer prevention," Mitchell said.
Derik Mills, chief of the Whitesville Fire Department, said he is aware of only limited studies of whether the new hoods are effective. For volunteer departments such as Whitesville, advances in technology, like the new hoods, can be cost-prohibitive.
"They were really expensive, and money is an issue with a volunteer fire department," Mills said.
When a fire is out, firefighters begin the "overhaul" phase at a fire scene, where they douse hot spots that could potentially re-ignite. When the fire was no longer actively blazing, it wasn't uncommon for firefighters to remove their air packs.
Although the fire is out, it was found that chemicals were still being released by the plastics and synthetic materials from the home. Cann said there are a multitude of chemicals still being released into the air because the materials are still hot enough to vent gases.
Old houses were "all wood, concrete and metal," Mills said. Today, houses "have all this synthetic material that was not meant to burn."
Even firefighters who don't enter a burning home are still exposed, Cann said. "There have been studies where even the chief (outside, commanding the fire response) has been exposed to an unacceptable level of chemicals."
The danger of exposure to toxins doesn't end when a firefighter leaves the scene of a blaze. Researchers discovered fire departments were taking those toxins back to the station on their gear and in their vehicles.
That has changed how firefighters handle their turnout gear—the gloves, coats, pants and other clothing they wear while fighting a fire.
"I can remember coming back from a fire, getting out of the truck and waltzing (into the station) with my gear," Daviess County Fire Chief Dwane Smeathers said. Today, "everyone knows you keep your gear in the engine bay."
Smeathers said turnout gear is changed out for new gear every five years. The Owensboro Fire Department and Daviess County Fire Department have large specialized washers for removing particles from gear, and the county's washers are used by the volunteer fire departments.
Mills said a few members of his department carry their turnout gear in their vehicles, but generally keep their gear in large tool boxes in their pickup trucks. But members who live near the department are required to keep their gear at the station. Every Whitesville firefighter has two protective hoods, so one hood can always been clean, Mills said.
Mitchell said firefighters have begun cleaning their turnout gear at the scene of a blaze, basically with a firehouse that attaches to a fire engine. There are also plans to start cleaning the inside of trucks to eliminate particles.
"Decontamination is going to be an expense, not so much in money as in hours," Mitchell said. "That will take us out of service longer."
Clean up might take a unit out of service an additional 30 to 45 minutes, Mitchell said.
Western Kentucky University sent a team of researchers and graduate students to take air samples inside city and county fire stations, and vehicles. WKU is working with the Green River Firefighter Association on the study.
If changes are going to be made to reduce the risk of cancer in the fire service, those changes will be made by the fire service itself, Cann said.
"The house-building industry is not looking at this in any way, shape or form," Cann said. "The way you fix this is through education" of firefighters, he said.
While large departments can invest in new gear and gear washers, volunteer departments, which often rely on fire dues, will need assistance, Cann said.
Volunteer departments "receive a certain amount of money from the government, but how do they get the money to pay for this stuff?" Cann said. "This stuff is expensive. I don't know what the answer is to closing the loop ... but there needs to be a funding source for these firefighters, to keep them safe."