CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – January is National Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month, a campaign to provide awareness and education for the leading cause of off duty deaths for firefighters.
Occupational cancer, which is caused by being exposure to carcinogens at work, has become the leading cause of death among firefighters. 22News spoke with local departments about their cancer prevention efforts.
Things like plastics & synthetics release harmful gases that can easily stick to firefighters’ gear and seep into their skin. Captain David Rex of the Holyoke Fire Department explained to 22News how they manage this health risk.
“To start with, it’s become the leading cause because of what’s burning these days,” said Captain Rex. “So now we have to not only once we’re done putting the fire out, overhauling and checking for extension, we have to come back to the station and make sure we clean everything, including our gear and ourselves.”
Oftentimes, firefighters begin that decontamination process before even stepping foot into the truck. Many firefighters keep a second-set of gear and wipes handy and also use an extractor, an industrial-sized washing machine capable of handling their gear.
Aside from the fire ground, the firehouse poses a threat due to diesel exhaust and residual soot. That’s why some departments install ventilation systems.
“Basically a ventilation system that can attach to the apparatus exhaust as it comes back in to the station and it stays on until it’s driving out the door, and it’s magnetic so it’s always on,” explained West Springfield Fire Department’s Lt. Tony Spear.
While firefighters practice cancer-prevention, they encourage others to practice fire-prevention.
“Watch your candles, watch your stove, watch your fireplaces, watch your kids because if we don’t have to go into that environment, it makes it even better for us,” said Captain Rex.
Cancer in firefighters is not inevitable. The Massachusetts Fire Academy offers cancer awareness programs and early detection cancer screenings.
The campaign asks people to wear the color lavender to show support for cancer awareness and prevention in firefighters. According to the International Association of Firefighters, 348 of the 469 names added to the Fallen Firefighters Memorial were off duty deaths due to occupational cancer.
Each week during the month of January will have a different theme. Week one is scope, which hopes to address the scope of the problem and define what carcinogens, exposures, and chemicals found in smoke that lead to the rates of occupational cancer.
Week two is research, or scientific research related to occupational cancer in firefighters. Week two also looks at screening tools and exposure routes. Research has linked occupational exposure to increased rates of multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate cancer, and testicular cancer.
Week three deals with prevention. This week looks at how firefighters can limit their exposure to cancer causing materials by using best practices. Part of best practices is to decontaminate gear after an emergency call. Week four is leadership, survivorship, and culture to aid firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer and provide resources to change culture to cancer prevention.