Igniting the Conversation Part 2: Types of exposures and what’s being done to help

How firefighters are exposed to cancer causing agents and what’s being done at the stations to help protect them.
Part one of the series, Igniting the Conversation. The importance of raising awareness of occupational cancer in the fire service
Published: Jan. 31, 2023 at 6:07 PM EST
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PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (WTAP) - In part one of the series WTAP looked at the increased risk firefighters face of getting and dying from occupational cancer and the importance of raising awareness on this issue.

But how are all these heroes being exposed? And what are stations currently doing to help firefighters right now?

Some of the answers may surprise you.

You’ll see that the very things protecting them from the fires themselves may be slowly killing them.

For part two of of Igniting the Conversation WTAP explains the different ways firefighters are exposed to things that cause cancer. That includes the gear they wear, the foam they use to fight fires and even the fumes from their fire truck.

The CDC refers to these types of exposures as occupational exposures. The cancers linked to these exposures are often referred to as occupational cancers.

Throughout part two the actions being taken to better protect them and how the culture has changed in the fire service will be explored further.

“Top priority is the safety of the firefighters here,” Parkersburg Fire Chief Jason Matthews.

Firefighters rely on certain things to protect them while fighting fires.

The trucks carrying them to the fires and holding their equipment. Turnout gear to protect the people from heat and flames. And foams to put out the fires.

“We have to have that gear to protect us, you know- thermal protection in the fires. It’s sad that that’s an inherent risk that comes with that and the fire protection built into it is killing us,” Parkersburg Fire Department Lieutenant Brandon Brown.

Over the past few years groups like the IAFF have been doing research to get more information about the how firefighters are being exposed to carcinogens and the types cancers facing the fire service.

“The foams and the gear, in the past, have had what are called PFAS- another term for them, they call them forever chemicals because once they do get into your system, they don’t go away,” says Joe Schumacher, COO for Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) describes PFAS, or Polyfluoroalkyl substances, as manufactured chemicals that don’t naturally occur.

The IAFF says PFAS stays in the body a long time and does not break down easily.

“There is a percentage of it {PFAS} in all of the personal protective equipment, the turnout gear that firefighters wear,” says Schumacher.

Schumacher says manufacturers are working on alternatives without the forever chemicals, and movement has been made with new foams, but as of today there are no safer alternatives to the gear.

The lining of the the thermal protection and vapor barrier in the gear firefighters wear while...
The lining of the the thermal protection and vapor barrier in the gear firefighters wear while fighting fires. Studies have found PFAS in the materials, that make firefighters more susceptible to certain cancers.(Alexa Griffey)

Vienna Volunteer Fire Chief Scholl explained that the fires themselves are changing too.

“Like I said, the fires burn so much hotter and faster anymore. It’s just really a disadvantage to us.”

More Synthetic materials and plastics have caused the fires to burn faster, hotter, and with more chemicals in the smoke are causing firefighters to re-evaluate how they attack the fires.

Changes including new equipment, separate gear rooms, supplies, and more.

“We recently have built two new fire stations and we’re working on a third. Part of that build process was making it as safe as possible for the firefighters that are there,” explained Chief Matthews.

Part of that safer build process includes a new vent system that hooks up to the fire trucks and funnels the exhaust out of the building.

Chief Matthews said this system and having a separate room for their gear was a no brainer.

He explained, “I know before we got those, you would, when they clean the station everyday you could go in and wipe down the kitchen table and you could see it inside the station.”

Wipes and decontamination kits are now brought to the fires. Chief Matthews said the firefighters use these after coming out of a fire.

“... They’re wiping down their face, their hands, so even those residual particles on them. They wipe them off before they can absorb them. You know, with the amount of heat, the gear is made to release the heat, but you’re still opening up those pores and it’s able to absorb a lot faster.”

It isn’t just procedural changes that have come from the research, but also cultural changes.

“It use to be if your turnout gear and helmet were really dirty, you were a really good firefighter. And now we’re learning that, yeah you’re going to get dirty but you need to clean it after and you don’t need to breathe that stuff in, you don’t need to absorb that stuff into your skin, so those are the big changes,” Chief Matthews.

Vienna Volunteer Fire Chief Steve Scholl says that as they get older, their perspective changes.

“When you sign up to do this, you know it’s dangerous. You don’t want to go looking for problems, but back then… of course we were all young and invincible, but over time and the older I get the more I hope I’m learning about it and being more cautious about it,” Chief Scholl.

These firefighters say that cancer isn’t on their mind when going in to help. It’s just an inherent risk that they’re willing to take.

WTAP asked both Fire chief Matthews and Fire Chief Scholl if anyone in their departments had been diagnosed with occupational cancer and they said they didn’t know of anyone who had.

Researchers are still trying to learn more about these forever chemicals and the effects they have on the body.

In part three of Igniting the Conversation, WTAP will look at the different types of cancer firefighter are facing and what’s being done to help protect them at the legislative level.