January is recognized by the IAFF as Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month and for good reason. Firefighter occupational cancer is the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths in the fire service. (IAFF 2022). The goal of Fire Fighter Cancer Awareness Month is to provide firefighters with the tools and guidance in developing life-saving protocols for cancer prevention and to support those with a cancer diagnosis. Bringing awareness to firefighter occupational cancer will help generate legislative support for states to establish presumptive disabilities for all cancers affecting firefighters.
Firefighters are exposed to a wide range of potentially harmful substances, including toxic smoke, chemicals, and other carcinogens, which can increase their risk of developing cancer. It is important that firefighters understand the risks of being diagnosed with cancer and ways to prevent them.
Firefighters have a 9% greater risk of being diagnosed with cancer than the general public and a 14% higher risk of dying from occupational cancer than the general public. (IAFF 2022). Testicular cancer, Multiple Myeloma, and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma lead the way in potential cancer diagnoses. Additionally, Breast cancer in women is 6 times the national average. 755 of the names added to the Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial in 2022 were those who died from cancer. That is 348 out of the 469 names.
So, what are some things that firefighters can do to reduce their chances of being diagnosed with cancer? One thing they can do is to reduce their modifiable risk factors. Stop using tobacco, exercise, eat healthier, use sunscreen, and reduce alcohol consumption. Getting good sleep is also something that firefighters need. This may be hard with shift work but get as much rest as possible.
Another good practice in cancer prevention involves cleaning firefighting PPE. Firefighters should clean their PPE every 6 months or as soon as possible after clothing has been exposed to contamination. A quick wet decontamination on the scene with a cleaning solution and a scrub brush will knock off and eliminate most of the carcinogens until the gear can be properly cleaned. PPE should not be worn inside living areas of the station and should be stored away from diesel exhaust. NFPA 1851 should be followed regarding retiring the gear and a second clean set should be available. In addition to cleaning your turnout gear your facepiece, helmet, radio, radio strap, flashlight, and SCBA should all be decontaminated as well. You want to make sure you eliminate as many potential cancer-causing carcinogens as possible.
A relatively new weapon in reducing exposure to cancer-causing carcinogens is wet wipes. Firefighters are exposed to a large variety of chemicals during fire operations. Using personal wipes to wipe away the contaminants on the skin can reduce them up to 54% until you can take a shower to remove them all. When using them be sure to wipe your hands, under the fingernails, and wipe your neck and throat. Wipe areas that are susceptible to a high degree of absorption, like the armpits or groin, and use the last wipe to clean your nostrils and blow your nose. This may take several wipes to accomplish. Commercially available products made specifically for firefighters can be used to accomplish this quick decontamination.
Over time, we have learned more about what can cause cancer. We also understand better the elevated risk that firefighters face because of their work. This has led to an awakening in the fire service across the nation, resulting in the development of legislation, policies, procedures, and best practices, establishing research and implementing prevention and treatment options. Although we have come a long way as a profession, we still have a long way to go.
The team here at Fire & EMS fully supports Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month and the work done by IAFF and other organizations to reduce the risk and occurrences of cancer among firefighters in our profession. As part of our support, we have teamed with Safer Straps to provide radio straps and buckets made of Biothane, a sealed, non-absorbing material, that is easy to clean. We have also committed to selling no leather straps, helmets, or helmet shields as they all can absorb massive amounts of carcinogens and are difficult to clean due to their absorption properties.
We also carry a variety of products that will help you remove contaminants from your gear and from you. Turn Out Clean from Denko Foam can be sprayed on your turnout gear while on the scene, scrubbed, and rinsed off. Denko also carries Machine Turn Out Clean for commercial washing machines. Hero Wipes from Diamond Wipes are used to wipe down your skin prior to leaving the scene and taking a shower. The wipes are durable and can eliminate up to 98% of toxic flame retardant, and 83% of Benzopyrene. You can find each of these items and more on our website.
Firefighter cancer awareness month. IAFF. (2022, December 31). Retrieved December 31, 2022, from https://www.iaff.org/cancer-awareness-month/