The leading cause of death among firefighters might come as a surprise

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) — Firefighters face risks every time they respond to a call, including potential long-term hazards to their health.

But the current leading cause of death among firefighters may come as a surprise.

Heart disease used to be the leading cause of death among firefighters, according to the International Association of Firefighters. But that has now been supplanted by occupational cancer, with 74 percent of the deaths added to the IAFF Memorial Wall each year now being attributed to cancer.

“This will not surprise firefighters,” said Chad Davis, president of the local IAFF, which has around 350 members in southwest Missouri. “We understand that our work is inherently dangerous and what we have learned over the years is that occupational cancer is now the number one hazard.”

And while many of us wonder how cancer can be such a big problem because firefighters typically wear some sort of respirator to keep them from inhaling toxic fumes, Davis explained that “breathing it in” isn’t the problem.

It is “absorption” through the skin.

“Every piece of furniture in your home has chemical ingredients, like paint, that when burned release various carcinogens,” Davis pointed out. “So these carcinogens are in the air and we absorb them through our skin. There are a variety of specific cancers like lymphoma, testicular cancer and mesothelioma that we get two to three times more likely than the general public.”

While there is no way to completely eliminate this risk, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network joins the IAFF to educate firefighters on best practices to prevent cancer.

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“The biggest thing we’ve done is after a work fire we do a mass decon where you basically turn the hose on yourself to wash up, put your gear in a plastic bag and that gear in a compartment instead of in the cab put it down,” said Chief Richard Stirts of the Logan-Rogersville Fire Protection District. “When you get back to the station, immediately take off your clothes, shower, wash the equipment and just try to clean up faster. And that’s a big change from our history, because in the old days, all the soot and blackness everywhere was considered a badge of honor. It took a while to educate people about this. It was not uncommon for volunteers to throw their gear in the car after a fire and leave it there for two weeks before retrieving it. Some of us took this dirty gear home and hung it in the foyer. So we expose our family. But we have learned a lot over the years.”

Davis said that the Springfield Fire Department lost a firefighter to occupational cancer about eight years ago and that the death affected all departments in the area.

“When you see one of your brothers or sisters going through this and the impact it has on their family and everyone they work with, it brings all of your worst fears to light,” Davis said. “Honestly, it’s terrifying.”

“I’m worried,” Stirts admitted. “Especially when you get older and your body changes so much. Today I still can’t do what I did three years ago and you must be wondering how much your brain and body have absorbed over the years. I became a cadet at 10 and walked into burning buildings at 14, which would get us into a lot of trouble these days. But I’ve been at this for 40 years and you’re concerned that there’s a ticking time bomb. All that time with soot on my face may one day catch up with me. As we speak today, it makes me very nervous because I know I lived during that time when we didn’t pay much attention to it.”

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