Idea of "looking cool" at fire departments can make it easier to get cancer

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COLUMBIA - A tradition among firefighters nationwide may in fact be a contributing factor in what some consider an epidemic affecting the first responders.

“Firefighters are dying across this country every day unfortunately,” said Battalion Chief for the Columbia Fire Department, Jeffrey Strawn. “We, as an organization, do consider it an epidemic.”  

Firefighters regularly come into contact with high amounts of carcinogens and chemicals, which causes them to be diagnosed with cancer at much higher rates than the average person.

According to the National Institution of Safety and Health Cancer study, there are higher rates of multiple types of cancer in firefighters compared to the general U.S. population including:

  • Testicular cancer (2.02 times greater risk)
  • Multiple myeloma (1.53 greater risk)
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (1.51 times greater risk)
  • Skin cancer (1.39 times greater risk)
  • Prostate cancer (1.28 times greater risk). 

Firefighters are also more likely to be diagnosed with brain cancer, colon cancer and breast cancer.

But there is something else that could be increasing the chance a firefighter gets cancer, and according to Strawn, it has been a problem in the department for years.

It’s the idea that dirty gear is “cool.”

“A firefighter who looked dirty, who had the dirtiest gear in the fire house… it was kind of a badge of honor,” Strawn said. “That was the person who had the most experience, they had seen the most fires, so their gear was the dirtiest, and that was cool.” 

Strawn said it’s always been a tradition in the fire department that one had “fought the fight” if their gear showed evidence of dirt, smoke and chemicals.

He has spent the last few years trying to change that mindset. Strawn encourages his coworkers to wipe off their gear with baby wipes, wear their masks and wash contaminated gear immediately after going into a fire. 

He said now, the department is starting to realize “looking cool” isn’t so cool.   

“That’s fearful,” Strawn said. “Those carcinogens are causing rates of cancer in firefighters that are unbelievable.” 

One of Strawn’s main pieces of advice is setting gear away from the fire truck so the diesel exhaust doesn’t come into contact with it.

“Diesel exhaust is essentially laying on the firefighters [personal protective equipment] or their gear so when they put it on, they’re literally just coating themselves with it,” he said. 

Rep. Shane Roden, R-Cedar Hill, said the higher temperatures firefighters are in make it easier for chemicals to enter the body.

“Our pores open up and it increases for every five-degree temperature our body rises, so our pores open up exponentially and all those carcinogens that are in that gear, that protective gear that we're wearing, it’s starting to absorb into our system,” said Roden.  

“All the carcinogens, the off-gassing that that gear is producing, it’s killing us slowly and we didn't even realize it,” he said.  

Strawn said Columbia’s fire stations have made a lot of strides, but they still have a lot of work to do.

He said the fire department has begun tracking fire exposures, putting more commercial extractors in stations, and using baby wipes in every fire truck.

Recently, two stations in Columbia received new extractors.

“The washer spins the gear at RPMs that are so high it actually pulls the carcinogens and other chemicals out of your gear,” Strawn said.

However, Roden said many smaller stations don't have the money to afford these washers. He said departments still have “a long way to go.” 

Roden believes the more education about these rates and good leadership is essential for making a change in the fire department.

“It’s important for our families, we have an obligation to make sure that people go home at the end of the day,” Roden said. “This is how we make sure that we don’t turn families into widows, we don’t have fatherless mothers, or fatherless kids, or motherless kids in the fire service and we need to do better to make sure everyone goes home.”