Tahlequah Daily Press

October 23, 2013

Occupational hazards

Tahlequah Fire Chief Ray Hammons and others discuss the higher-than-average danger of cancer firefighters like his crews face at work

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — When they’re surrounded by a wall of smoke and flames or facing a chemical spill at the scene of a crash, the last thing on the minds of local firefighters is the increased risk of cancer they could face because of their exposure.

But the harsh reality, according to a 2006 University of Cincinnati study by environmental health researchers, is that firefighters are at an increased risk of certain types of cancer – including prostate cancer, testicular cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

“I can attest to the fact that the more years you put in service, the more it’s on your mind,” said Tahlequah Fire Chief Ray Hammons. “We have a very, very high rate of firefighters throughout the nation who contract cancer. Firefighters have a short lifespan because of the extreme work that they do.”

Many of the carcinogens to which firefighters are exposed – benzene, diesel engine exhaust, chloroform and soot, for instance – can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

“Any type of smokes produce carcinogens that have cancer-causing chemicals or byproducts in them,” said Hammons. “When we go to a structure fire, there are many of these things inside homes today. More and more items are made out of plastic – carpets, seat covers, mattresses – and then there are varnishes and paints on woodwork that also put off cancer-causing carcinogens.”

Three years ago, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health partnered with the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Fire Administration to begin a multi-year study  examining the increased risk of cancer among firefighters due to contaminants.

“There is a need to have a comprehensive study of the incidence of cancer in the fire service involving objective medical and epidemiological oversight,” USFA Administrator Kelvin J. Cochran said when the study began. “We have lost too many firefighters from this disease.”

Results of that study are expected to be released next year, but local firefighters believe they already know what the research will find.

“Heart, lung and cancer are the three things that kill firefighters, and all have to do with exposure. As we put on years and years of service as firefighters, our families start to realize there is a higher risk of contracting cancer because of our jobs,” said Hammons. “That’s always in the back of our minds. Even the state pension system has recognized the increased risks we face.”

Oklahoma’s pension system for firefighters includes a “presumption” clause, Hammons said.

“When we get hired on as firefighters, they test us for cancers,” he said. “If we don’t have cancer, we pass the test and go to work. If at any time during our career we contract cancer, it’s the presumption that we got it while on duty.”

Tahlequah and Hulbert fire departments both benefit from the state’s pension system. Volunteer firefighters can also receive a small amount of retirement benefits under the pension system.

Local first responders are often urged to take various classes to help them identify and describe some of the chemicals they could face, according to Tahlequah-Cherokee County Emergency Management Director Gary Dotson.

“It’s good for first responders to know how to approach them and how to deal with those chemicals,” said Dotson.

Local members of emergency management haven’t faced a large number of dangerous chemicals in recent years, Hammons said, but the threat is always looming.

“It’s not that it’s not out there; we’ve just been lucky here not to have seen too many of those situations,” said Dotson.

The gear used by first responders helps protect them from dangerous chemicals.

“Our bunker gear is created with a fabric that protects you from temperatures, as well as exposure,” said Hammons. “Inside it has two layers, and both are fire-resistant. The inner shell has a solid barrier to try to keep chemicals from penetrating.”

But after a fire has been extinguished, firefighters often remove much of their gear while working through the charred remains to ensure hot spots have been snuffed out.

“Even when the fire’s out, carcinogens are still trapped inside that structure,” said Hammons. “So even though we wear protective gear, we’re not completely immune.”