January is Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month
January 2, 2023
Research shows that firefighters are more likely to be diagnosed with certain types of cancer than the general population–a trend we hope to reduce. The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) and the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) have partnered to deliver targeted education about best practices and resources to prevent and reduce cancer among firefighters during Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month in January.
The month-long campaign includes information on safety stand downs, training briefs and a focus on prevention and mitigation, including the scope of the cancer in the fire service, best practices for prevention and skills to help survivors of occupational cancer.
These topics are reinforced with online resources, such as daily training information and infographics that promote the program and underline the importance of the issue on social media, as well as podcasts addressing the important issues of prevention and documentation of exposures to carcinogens.
At the 2022 IAFF Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial, almost 75% of the names added to the wall (348 out of 469) were members who had died from occupational cancer. That’s an unacceptable number and reinforces that notion that cancer is the most dangerous threat to firefighter health and safety today.
Firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population, according to research by the CDC/National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH).
Here’s an overview with some specific additional risks for firefighters noted from the NIOSH study:
- testicular cancer – 2.02 times the risk (again: 100% = double = 2 times);
- mesothelioma – 2.0 times greater risk;
- multiple myeloma -1.53 times greater risk;
- non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – 1.51 times greater risk;
- skin cancer – 1.39 times greater risk;
- malignant melanoma – 1.31 times greater risk;
- brain cancer -1.31 times greater risk;
- prostate cancer – 1.28 times greater risk;
- colon cancer -1.21 times great risk; and
- leukemia – 1.14 times greater risk.
Further data from the NIOSH study revealed higher rates of certain types of cancer. Based on U.S. cancer rates:
- Fire fighters in our study had a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths.
- These were mostly digestive, oral, respiratory, and urinary cancers.
- There were about twice as many fire fighters with malignant mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
- Exposure to asbestos while firefighting is the most likely explanation for this.
- There were more cases of certain cancers among younger fire fighters.
- For example, firefighters in our study who were under 65 years of age had more bladder and prostate cancers than expected.
- When comparing fire fighters in our study to each other:
- The chance of lung cancer diagnosis or death increased with amount of time spent at fires.
- The chance of leukemia death increased with the number of fire runs.
How to protect yourself at work
As a firefighter, you may be used to putting others before yourself, but your own health and safety are important too. Protect yourself at work by taking steps to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals:
- Reduce exposure to diesel exhaust from the fire apparatus.
- Use and maintain diesel exhaust containment or removal systems.
- Open bay doors before the engine starts.
- Keep open bay doors upon return until after engine is shut off.
- Do not allow apparatus to idle inside the station.
- Keep the doors to the station office and living areas closed. Assure they are properly sealed.
- Conduct a daily apparatus check outside, if the apparatus engine needs to be running
- Clean and care for PPE and SCBA properly.
- Clean PPE following NFPA 1851 and manufacturer’s recommendations after every fire.
- Maintain and test SCBA daily to ensure its properly functioning.
- Use SCBA and remain on air through the end of overhaul and if exposed to smoke on exterior operations.
- Perform decontamination of gear and SCBA at the fire ground while still on SCBA air. Keep on SCBA air until on-scene decontamination is complete.
- Do not wash PPE at home or public laundry mat.
- Damaged or contaminated gear may need to be destroyed or retired according to Chapter 10 of NFPA 1851.
- Wash yourself as soon as possible after every fire.
- Wash exposed face, hands, head, and neck at the fire ground with wet wipes or soap and water. Keep wet wipes available for easy cleanup.
- Shower your entire body as soon as possible after cleaning equipment upon return to the station.
- After showering, change into clean clothes.
- Store PPE gear correctly to avoid contaminating other areas in the firehouse or apparatus.
- At the firehouse, store gear in designated areas only. Keep gear locker room door closed. Do not wear or leave gear in the living and sleeping areas
- After a fire, exposed gear should be returned to the station for cleaning via the fire apparatus. Store exposed gear in an outside compartment while returning to the station. If gear must be stored inside the apparatus, place it in a tied garbage bag or an airtight container. If stored in a container that will be reused, the container must also be cleaned.
- Use a PPE gear bag or an airtight container when transporting clean gear in personal vehicles.
- Always be cautious at the fire ground.
- Do not rely on gas detectors to determine when to wear PPE. Even when the fire is out, contaminated particles still saturate the environment.
- Wear full PPE and SCBA during overhaul.
- Wear full PPE and SCBA at car and trash fires too.
- Provide as much natural ventilation as feasible to burned structures before starting investigations. Fire investigators should wear appropriate breathing protection.