Until recently, the connection between firefighting and cancer was unclear. There were no studies, no statistics, and no databases—just an inclination and an uneasy feeling that too many brave men and women were dying of this terrible disease.
Then a 2006 study found elevated risk for certain cancers including multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate and testicular cancer, and follow-up studies found firefighters are also more susceptible to other cancers, such as malignant mesothelioma.
Firefighters are diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma at twice the rate of the general population. This is most likely because mesothelioma is caused by asbestos, a material that was heavily used in homes until 1976, when it was classified as a carcinogen and the first regulation was put in place. Fires in old homes and buildings release asbestos fibers into the air where they may be absorbed through the skin, inhaled by firefighters not correctly wearing their SCBAs, or remain as dust on their gear and breathed in at a later time.
“Cancer is the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths among firefighters, and we lose about one firefighter each year to cancer,” says Mahlon Mitchell, lieutenant at the Madison Fire Department and president of Fire Fighters Local 311. “We in the Madison Fire Department are not immune to the effects of cancer. Many retirees have had their lives cut short because of this disease.”
Now that we know cancer is a concern for firefighters, the question is how do we combat it? The Madison Fire Department recognizes the importance of quick and thorough decontamination to remove carcinogens from the immediate environment. Simple immediate measures, like wiping down the neck, face, and shoulder areas while on scene, can reduce the long-term effects of dangerous exposure.
“The Madison Fire Department is working closely and cooperatively with the organized labor to ensure we develop strong policies and training around exposure reduction and decontamination,” says Fire Chief Steven Davis. “The MFD is committed to providing the tools, equipment, and knowledge needed to ensure our firefighters are as healthy as they can be throughout their career.”
Though there has been much progress in the last decade, the effects of cancer on firefighters, and the circumstances of the job that lead to a diagnosis, are still being studied. Most recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act to document and gather data that will hopefully lead to more improvements in safety protocols and other cancer prevention tactics.
Firefighters and other first responders put their lives on the line every day to keep our homes, pets, and the community safe. You can play a small part in returning the favor by spreading awareness about firefighters with mesothelioma and cancer in general.
Join us on September 26, 2017 for Mesothelioma Awareness Day by calling for a complete ban on asbestos and advocating for the removal of asbestos from existing buildings.
Do you have a loved one with mesothelioma? You can share their story with the hashtags #ENDMeso and #MesotheliomaAwarenessDay.
Let’s work together to make Madison Fire Department and firehouses all across America cancer-free.
This blog was produced in partnership with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.