NORTHWEST ARKANSAS, Ark. (KNWA/FOX24) — In the 20 years since 9/11, more light is being shed on the long-term health effects firefighters face as a result of their job.
The International Association of Fire Fighters says cancer caused 66% of firefighter line of duty deaths from 2002 to 2019.
“These people really do put their lives on the line for us,” said Dr. Eric Schaefer, and oncologist at Highlands Oncology in Fayetteville.
Everyday, firefighters around the nation run toward the dangerous situations we run away from, situations that are dangerous in ways that aren’t always obvious.
“Today’s modern fires have so many more poisons in them,” said Capt. Mike Blain with the Springdale Fire Department. “There are so many chemicals that make up so many products these days in a normal household.”
In 2013, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health ran a study with 30,000 firefighters from Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco. They compared the firefighters to a control group made up of similar age, gender and ethnicity.
“What they did find is that there is a 9% increase in cancer in this group and of those cancers, about a 14% increase in mortality,” said Dr. Schaefer. “So not only are more firefighters getting cancer to their matched controls, but they are also deadlier.”
The study found that firefighters had greater risk of digestive, oral, respiratory and urinary cancers. It also found a higher risk of testicular cancer and mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
Capt. Blain said this hits home for the Springdale Fire Department.
“Captain Howard “Bud” Planchon passed several years ago,” he said, adding that Capt. Planchon had been with the department for at least two decades at the time of his passing. “He was diagnosed with cancer. He was a very very strong individual who fought for several years, he fought through it. And unfortunately he succumbed to the cancer that he had.”
Lessons are being taken from Capt. Planchon’s line of duty sacrifice, including better ventilation in the truck bays and better protective gear. Capt. Blain said they started with the nationwide cancer initiative that gives them policies and techniques for deconning themselves and washing gear more appropriately.
He said he is also grateful to the city of Springdale for providing additional funding so that each firefighter has two sets of gear, so that as one is being washed, they have another to wear to a call.
“It hits home very closely, especially with a lot of the younger firefighters where it’s not one of those things you think about too terribly much,” said Capt. Blain. “So we are glad that we’ve gotten all these policies and procedures that we have, and the equipment that we have, to help minimize those risks for the younger guys.”
Dr. Schaefer encourages all firefighters to speak up when they feel something is wrong.
“For testicular cancer, it’s if you feel a lump in your testes, for esophageal cancer, anyone who starts to notice difficulty swallowing, if you have any unexplained weight loss, all of these are reasons to seek out medical care,” he said. “It is important for us to just talk to the firemen about any potential warning signs and say hey, if any of these things happen, please don’t be afraid to come in.”