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Protecting firefighters from toxic exposure on fire scenes

Are firefighters at a greater risk of cancer? It makes sense that they would be. While buildings once consisted primarily of wood, metal, glass and textiles, today's structures are riddled with asbestos, plastics, polymers and chemical coatings. The housing of a television set, for example, contains benzene, ethylene oxide and formaldehyde, all of which are known to cause cancer. These materials make home fires burn hotter and faster and result in toxic smoke.

The Chicago Tribune and the Pioneer Press recently published a multi-part series on cancer among firefighters and efforts to reduce it.

A large-scale, multi-year study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health confirmed that firefighters suffer higher rates of certain cancers than the general public. These included malignant mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Others included respiratory, oral, digestive, urinary, bladder and prostate cancers.

According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, 70 percent of line-of-duty deaths among career firefighters in 2016 were caused by cancer. That doesn't even include volunteer firefighters, who make up approximately 70 percent of the force. The advocacy group indicates that firefighters are at a 14-percent higher risk of cancer than the general public.

In July, Congress passed the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act, which directs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track cancer in firefighters and gauge the added risk to the profession. However, even convincing proof that firefighters are at substantially increased risk of cancer doesn't prove that any individual firefighter's cancer was caused by work-related exposures.

Departments adopting the Go Green Clean campaign to prevent cancer

Across the nation, fire departments are focusing resources on prevention. One movement is the Go Green Clean campaign, which offers 11 best practices for prevention aimed at limiting overall exposure to toxins and also limiting the length of each exposure.

The campaign urges firefighters to wear their full protective gear, including mask and ventilator, throughout the incident and until a supervisor determines it is safe to remove the gear. At that point, they should immediately begin decontamination, using soap and water or wet wipes on any areas of skin that are contaminated. Ideally, they would remove their gear at the scene and stow it in plastic bags to be cleaned in a special washing machine. At the firehouse, they should shower immediately, even before stopping for a drink of water.

When firefighters develop cancer, it may not be obvious exactly when or how they were exposed to a cancer-causing toxin. That does not necessarily mean that the cancer cannot be tied to occupational exposures, however. Discuss your case with an attorney familiar with cancers caused by environmental contamination.

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