Studies Show Firefighters Have An Increased Risk of Cancer - Erie News Now | WICU & WSEE in Erie, PA

Studies Show Firefighters Have An Increased Risk of Cancer

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Every day, firefighters risk their lives for others. But risks such as fires, isn't their biggest killer. According to the International Association of Firefighters, cancer is.

"There's specific cancers that firefighters are more apt to come down with," explained Charlie Heffner, a West Ridge Volunteer Firefighter.

Heffner has been a volunteer for nearly 45 years. But in 2004, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. one of 10 cancers that are more commonly seen among firefighters.

Heffner said one of the biggest reasons for the increased risk of cancer, is the chemicals that have changed over the years

"Like the furnishings in this room. Wooden table, a little bit of polythene padding on the chairs and cloth chairs. Now the average house has a lot of urethane, a lot of polyethlean foam, a lot plastics, a lot of synthetics and it's a different chemical mix," he explained.

Now more than ever, firefighters see hydrogen cyanide, a toxic chemical. 

In 2010, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health led the largest cancer study of United States firefighters to date. Statistics showed that firefighters have a nine percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer. 

Retired firefighter Nelson Failes worked alongside Heffner at West Ridge, an active member for over 40 years. Failes is also a prostate cancer survivor. But he admits, he is not sure if there is a connection between firefighting and cancer.

"I don't. But I don't know that much about it," said Failes.

Firefighters are now given recommendations on how to purge themselves from the harmful chemicals during a fire. These recommendations include: washing your clothes at the scene after you get out of the fire, changing your clothes, washing them again at the station, showering at the station, changing clothes again before you would head home. 

But, this routine isn't always possible.

"The biggest problem we have is you have to have enough people to start with at the scene. So that when you come out of the fire, there is somebody there to wash you off, and take your place," said Heffner.

Heffner recommends if you don't have the manpower, wash your gear often, and yourself immediately after a fire. 

He said the key for firefighters is to keep learning, especially about the advancements in the industry. But despite their diagnosis, both men say it's an honor to be a firefighter.

"I was able to help people and that's always made me feel good. Try to learn as much as you can about everything that goes on because it's going to help you out in the long run," said Failes.

"Absolutely great vocation. You get to help people. and the best thing is you get to work as a team, and do things as a team, that nobody else will do," said Heffner.

Congress is currently considering whether to approve the creation of a National Firefighter Cancer Registry, to get a firm handle on the number of deaths. 

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