Increasing attention to cancer diagnoses in current and former firefighters has led to recent national legislation and caused local departments to seek new equipment for protection.
On July 9, President Donald Trump signed a law that requires the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to develop and maintain a voluntary registry of firefighters with cancer. The Firefighter Cancer Registry Act calls for a collection of career professionals or volunteers to provide information such as number of years on the job, number of calls responded to, and incident type.
That came after the Ohio legislature last year passed Senate Bill 27, which extended workers compensation to firefighters with cancer.
“The fact that our state and federal governments are seeing that cancer within firefighters is there says a lot,” said Jim Burneka, founder of Firefighter Cancer Consultants, which consults with departments about best practices for reducing cancer risk.
The awareness is strong at the local level, where departments like Vandalia are seeking new equipment that is meant to reduce the risk of cancer. Vandalia has received a grant of almost $12,100 from the Firefighter Exposure to Environmental Elements Grant Project through the Ohio Bureau of Worker’s Compensation.
The program has awarded $745,000 to departments this year, through June 29. The city will be obligated to pay the remaining cost of about $2,400. The total cost is about $14,499.
The gloves and hoods that will be purchased are designed to reduce the amount of cancer-causing particles from reaching the skin, according to Vandalia Fire Chief Chad Follick.
“The more we do our studies, the more the public is aware, the more we can protect our firefighters,” said Dr. Kelly Miller, an oncologist with Dayton Physicians at Premier Health.
A standard set of gloves and hoods are about $40, but the newer versions are double that. The city will purchase 85 of each.
“It is an important part of our occupational cancer prevention program,” Follick said. “These are key pieces of personal protective clothing, so upgrading them means a lot to our personnel.”
According to the National Fire Protection Association, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently undertook two large studies focused on firefighter cancer and concluded that firefighters face a 9 percent increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths compared to the general population in the United States.
“Studies have shown more correlations with lung cancer and Leukemia and the job of a firefighter,” Miller said. “The longer our firefighters work and are exposed to these elements, the more likely chance they will develop some type of cancer.”
The newer versions of gloves and hoods were created in efforts to reduce the number of firefighters that get cancer due to the conditions in which they work.
“It used to be a hidden problem, but now people are talking about it,” Burneka said.
Burneka’s consulting firm specializes in evaluating fire departments through interviews, policy/procedure review and station inspections. The information obtained is used to create an individualized department program that will help reduce the risk of members receiving an occupational cancer diagnosis.
“The CDC and other health organizations are becoming more and more aware of the problems firefighters are facing,” Miller said.
Officials hope the information gathered as part of the new national registry will help researchers better understand the impact of smoke inhalation and other job-related dangers, like potential cancerous particles, that may lead cancer.
The new style of gloves and hoods are being purchased by city and township fire departments all across the country to better protect their personnel. Dan Stitzel, chief of the Riverside Fire Department, which also received a grant to help buy new equipment, said his office purchased 85 new sets of gloves and 85 new hoods that have higher protection quality. The department has also purchased extra turn out gear, so when the firefighters are exposed to cancer-causing particles in a fire, they can change gear and clean the others.
“Grants like what the BWC funds really do help departments help prevent cancer or limit cancer in firefighters,” Burneka said.