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January is Fire Fighter Cancer Awareness Month

Firefighting is known to be a dangerous profession.  In addition to the obvious risks of running into burning buildings, the men and women of professional and volunteer fire departments are at an increased risk for something else — cancer.

In fact, occupational cancer is the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths in the fire service, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).

At the 2023 IAFF Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial, 63% of the names added to the wall were members who had died from occupational cancer.

Recent studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that focused on firefighter cancer found that compared to the general population, firefighters had a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths.

This increased risk is due to the smoke and hazardous chemicals they are routinely exposed to, including a variety of synthetic and plastic materials that, when burned, release a number of carcinogens (cancer-causing agents).  This includes exposure to things like arsenic, asbestos, benzene, diesel exhaust, formaldehyde, radioactivity, sulfuric acid and dozens of other possible carcinogens that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the specialized cancer agency for the World Health Organization (WHO), recently classified the firefighting occupation as carcinogenic to humans, placing the job in Group 1 — the IARC’s highest carcinogenic hazard classification. 

Previously, IARC had classified firefighter occupational exposure as Group 2B — possibly carcinogenic to humans.  The new classification as Group 1 puts firefighting on par with tobacco and benzene as carcinogenic to humans.

The personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by firefighters, generally called turnout gear, can offer some protection from carcinogens, but if not properly cleaned can carry contaminants from fire scenes, cross-contaminating everything it touches. The gear itself also poses a cancer threat.

Lab-made chemicals known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which have been linked to cancer and other diseases, are used in most turnout gear.

PFAS are helpful in making products that resist oils, stains, water and heat.  

Since the 1940s, PFAS have been used commercially to make non-stick coatings on cookware, as well as protective coatings for products like carpets and fabrics. They have also been used in coatings for paper and cardboard food packaging, firefighting foams, ski wax and some other products.

Because of the potential health risks posed by PFAS in turnout gear, IAFF leaders are drawing attention to the need for PFAS-free turnout gear and precautions that can be taken until new gear can be developed and put to use.

In partnership with the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN), the IAFF designated January as Fire Fighter Cancer Awareness Month.

Throughout the month, fire departments nationwide are encouraged to provide firefighters the necessary tools and guidance to develop life-saving protocols for cancer prevention and to support those with a cancer diagnosis within their departments.  The hope is to also bring increased public awareness to occupational cancer in firefighters that will help generate greater legislative support for the cause.

The Morgantown Fire Department got a head start on Cancer Awareness Month thanks to a $57,000 Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) recently accepted by the City of Morgantown. 

The grant was used to fund cancer screenings for Morgantown firefighters, including multi-cancer early detection blood testing and comprehensive diagnostic ultrasounds for early diagnosis and treatment of occupational cancer.  The screenings were held in December at the Morgantown Fire Department’s Northside Fire Station.

MFD Lt. Jayson Nicewarner said the screenings were a blessing.

“I know plenty of people who have done these screenings that have caught cancers early and been able to get treatment. Without this opportunity, none of this would be possible,” he said. “Without these screenings there becomes a greater risk for these individuals who are putting their lives on the line for others every day for potential cancer down the line.”

Like most diseases in our diverse society, cancer risks can vary from person to person, so in 2018, Congress passed the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act, to help better understand the risks nationwide.

The act directed NIOSH to develop a registry to study cancer among firefighters.  The National Firefighters Registry for Cancer (NFR) is the largest effort undertaken so far to understand and reduce cancer among U.S. firefighters.

The NRF helps researchers by matching the information provided by participating NFR firefighters with cancer diagnosis information from state cancer registries. This matching process allows NIOSH to study the relationship between firefighting and cancer outcomes over time.

The NFR aims to help long-term; more can be done at the state level to aid firefighters who have contracted cancer.

“There’s a lot of coworkers (firefighters) not just at Morgantown, but throughout the state that I know that have gotten different types of cancer and we’ve been fighting really hard to get cancer presumptions put into state law to help us with workers comp and things like that,” Nicewarner said.

Many states have established cancer presumptions, or laws establishing a presumption that certain types of cancer contracted by firefighters are the result of duty-related exposure, which West Virginia firefighters are hoping to get into state laws here.

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