Hidden Death: Firefighters face long-term consequences of dangerous career

Firefighters have far higher rates of certain cancers than the general population.

Posted: Feb 5, 2018 7:16 PM
Updated: Feb 7, 2018 9:16 AM

EUGENE, Ore. --When you think of dangerous jobs... Firefighting is near the top of the list.
But aside from the flames and smoke there’s another danger lurking. One less obvious—and more patient.

Joe Zaludek, chief of the Eugene Springfield Fire Department, who’s been in the fire service since 1984, says he’s lost friends to cancer.

“I do worry about it,” he said. “I wonder you know what contamination have I already experienced that's dormant that one day I might experience a cancer."

Zaludek has good reason to worry. According to a government study done in 2015, firefighters have a greater number of cancer-related deaths than the general population. And they’re twice as likely to get malignant mesothelioma, which is a rare cancer caused by asbestos.

Those findings, along with previous research going back decades, has led to sweeping changes in fire stations across the country. Gone are the days of firefighters smoking in the bunkhouse or rushing into a burning home without air packs.

Cleanliness has replaced saltiness as the order of the day.

“It was kind of a badge of honor,” Zaludek said. “You never washed your gear. In fact, you would never clean your helmet either to show that you'd been inside taking care of business."

Coburg fire chief Chad Minter grew up in the fire service. His mother is a retired fire chief and when he was a kid one of his jobs was to empty the ashtray in the fire trucks.

When he decided to join the family business in 1985, nobody mentioned the risk of cancer.

“It was definitely never thought about then,” he said. “It was more about the risks of fighting fire, being on the freeway getting hit by a car. It was never even thought about."

Today, Minter says, cancer prevention begins at the scene. If a firefighter gets soot on his or her face, it gets cleaned up immediately with wet wipes. Crews hose off their boots and turnout gear before leaving the fire and they breathe bottled air anytime they're exposed to smoke.

Back at the station, the dirty gear never goes into the living quarters—another big change.

“If you were on duty you would take your gear and put it in the bedroom so when you got up in the middle of the night you could step into it,” Minter said.

Today, the gear is washed after every fire run; bottled air is closely monitored for carbon monoxide; and even the diesel exhaust from the fire trucks is sucked out of the garage.

Minter says the environment firefighters face today is more toxic than ever.

“The smoke isn't getting better for us,” Minter said. “It's only getting worse over time with all the chemicals and all the plastics and all that kinds of stuff. And that's not even including meth labs."

Back in Eugene, Zaludek says his department is almost there but there's still work to do. He wants new-and-improved vapor-barrier hoods for the firefighters and an advanced exhaust system for one of the older stations.

“It’s a matter of diligence and never accepting that it's good enough and that we've got this covered,” he said.

Both Zaludek and Minter say the goal is to reduce the dangers of an already dangerous job.

Or at least not make them worse.

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