Fighting For Our Firefighters

Firefighters continue to suffer death and illness due to routine exposure to toxic and carcinogenic substances. Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) and public employee fire investigators are allied professions, working out of the same fire stations and responding to the same emergencies that firefighters do. EMTs and public employee fire investigators experience similar issues, and are often times more at risk for certain exposures, resulting in potential illness and death.

Kent House fire

Protecting Firefighters from Toxic Environments

Kent fire fighters in smokeThe materials used in manufacturing products found in the home and workplace have evolved over several decades using synthetic materials. Further, toxic chemicals coat these products in effort to prevent fire; however, they are proven to be ineffective and cause more harm than good. Due to the change in materials, fires burn faster and hotter than fires from previous generations. When exposed to fire, products found in homes and workplaces change into hazardous substances that are aerosolized as products of combustion. Firefighters take precautions by using protective equipment that provides respiratory and thermal protections. However, protective firefighting equipment is not vapor proof. Firefighters go into superheated environments where skin pores open up, allowing the toxic, aerosolized products of combustion to enter in to the body. Additionally, as the structure is demolished by the fire, materials break down, making them easier to enter the body. Firefighters also respond to a significant amount of medical calls, making them at risk for transmission of communicable disease. These stressful environments take a toll on the body and can cause heart problems or stroke.

Many scientific studies have detailed that firefighters experience higher rates of occupational diseases, including certain cancers, respiratory and cardiac diseases, than the general public. In recognition of this intrinsic occupational hazard, the legislature granted fire fighters a rebuttable presumption in 1987, and has since expanded twice based on new evidence that these occupational diseases are on-the-job injuries.

Numerous recent studies demonstrate that firefighters experience additional cancers at higher rates compared to the general population who are not currently covered under the rebuttable presumption, including:

  • Mesothelioma: 2.29 times greater risk of contracting and 2 times greater risk of dying
  • Stomach cancer: 1.58 times greater risk of contracting and 1.1 times greater risk of dying
  • Esophageal cancer: 1.32 times greater risk of contracting and 1.39 times greater risk of dying
  • Buccal and pharynx cancer: 1.39 times greater risk of contracting and 1.4 times greater risk of dying
  • Non-melanoma skin cancer: 1.52 times greater risk of contracting
  • Adenocarcinoma: 1.9 times greater risk of contracting
  • Breast Cancer: 1.26 times greater risk of contracting and 1.39 times greater risk of dying
    • Women are an underrepresented population within the fire service making it difficult to obtain a large enough sample. However, early studies indicate women are at 1.45 times greater risk of contracting and 1.46 times greater risk of dying from breast cancer

Other states, including Texas, Rhode Island, and Illinois, extend the rebuttable presumption fire fighters have in Washington to those working in adjunct professions like emergency medicine and fire investigation.

Although firefighters are routinely exposed, there is little exposure reporting being done. Various systems and products exist to log individual firefighter exposures. With greater data, firefighters can analyze their risk of illness and work with their physician to monitor any potential problems. Further, greater data about what type of exposures are occurring can be used to minimize or eliminate cancer causing exposures altogether. Corrective training can be identified to eliminate procedural problems or a problem can be more easily identified with proper protective equipment. Without gathering widespread data on the incidence of occupational exposure, fire service leaders and other interested parties are unable to determine if and when preventable exposures are occurring.