The dangers of firefighting when a building is burning or an inferno is raging are apparent.
But the most common causes of death for the nation’s firefighters actually include heart attacks from the physical stress of fires and accidents on the way to and from their perilous duties.
Now, another threat to the health of these courageous men and women is gaining recognition: cancer.
A monthlong study by The Kansas City Star found that the country’s firefighters are locked in a different type of battle. They are seeking compensation for cancers that many believe are caused by exposure to toxins while fighting fires.
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In many cases, grieving families are fighting this sad battle alone. Their husbands, wives, fathers and mothers have died from a cancer they think was caused by toxins encountered on the job. As a startling report noted: “Today’s residential fires have more in common with hazmat events.”
That makes sense. So many flammable items are made from plastics and other materials. This creates a noxious and possibly deadly atmosphere for those who battle the fire.
The problem is, the cancers develop slowly, often years after firefighters retire. Higher rates of testicular cancer and malignant mesothelioma, along with lung, colon and urinary tract cancers are suspected.
If the ailments and fatalities are as widespread as some believe, this could signal huge financial liabilities for the municipalities that must safeguard the livelihood of firefighters. Local governments also have a responsibility to assist firefighters’ families.
Anything that can be done to move this beyond anecdotal evidence and suspicions about correlation must be pursued. Cause and effect should be established. Better data are essential.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will play a key role. The CDC already has done substantial work to try to prove the links between cancer and firefighting. Additional efforts are needed to answer questions about other contributing factors that are not related to firefighting, such as genetics and lifestyle choices, including smoking.
Finally, the push to establish a federal registry for cancer deaths among firefighters must proceed quickly.
Other professions and identifiable groups have undertaken similar efforts to try to prove that fatal maladies later in life are linked, if not caused by, exposure years earlier. Vietnam veterans are a relevant example. They fought for years to expose the effects of Agent Orange and to be compensated for its devastating impact on their health later in life.
Firefighters enter this profession knowing they will be putting themselves in harm’s way. But they deserve to know more about potential threats to their long-term health. This emerging danger deserves attention.