📷 The Southbridge Fire Department responds to new documentation of cancer risk for firefighters. Photo by Helen Boyle Valentino
By Sarah Champagne, Managing Editor
SOUTHBRIDGE – Firefighting is a dangerous profession, there is no doubt. The risks and sacrifice that firefighters take on to keep a community safe are well-known and widely appreciated; part of any community’s gratitude and respect for firefighters is based on the fact that these first responders enter burning buildings or run steadfast into danger that others must flee from.
However, an occupational hazard far less visible than a burning building has recently emerged at the forefront of research on firefighter health and safety. This risk is no less alarming than a burning building and may happen more frequently. That hidden threat is cancer, and recent studies have shown that firefighters have a heightened lifetime risk of cancer from occupational exposures.
As studies emerge and new cancer-prevention gear becomes available, the cultural shift needed to create an emphasis on cancer prevention gear and policies for fire departments is a gradual process, both within departments and with the public.
Southbridge firefighters Mike Gonynor and John Parrettie recently sat down with The Citizen Chronicle to talk about the risk, which was long suspected but recently documented, and the equipment and procedures that are now available to address that risk as well as an upcoming fundraiser for the Southbridge Permanent Firefighters’ Cancer Prevention Committee, a beer and wine tasting to be held Oct. 14.
“It is a culture change. Even the older guys are doing it,” Parrettie says of procedures and equipment available to reduce risk. “The younger guys see them taking part and it becomes a part of their training. Over time, it could become second nature to take part in the routine,” he says of new preventative gear and procedures.
Some of the procedures that could mitigate cancer risk among firefighters include the decontamination of gear after every fire regardless of scope, showers for anyone who responds to a fire upon return to the station and the removal of dirt and larger debris on site at a fire call. Specialty wipes made from all organic material are also available for firefighters to spot clean after a fire on a regular basis. These procedures and an emphasis on thorough cleaning of equipment and gear have been adopted by firefighters who understand the risk fo cancer. But it also represents a culture change from former generations who saw a bit of soot on one’s helmet or gear as a source of pride, an indicator that one had been to battle with a fire.
“There is an old idea of the ‘salty’ firefighter and that the more dirt on your helmet, the more fires you had fought,” Parrettie says.
It’s a cultural image for the general public as much as it has been a status symbol for former generations of firefighters. For Gonynor and Parrettie, the image is an example of how we are often not aware of hidden risks, such as carcinogens found in dust and debris. Before the current research emerged, a firefighter might wear the same clothing or gear to a second fire if it weren’t too soiled or dirty from the previous call.
“You might go to other calls with equipment that hasn’t been wiped down or decontaminated completely, reintroducing toxins to another site which have settled into your skin or gear,” Gonynor comments.
The Southbridge Fire Department has been able to obtain some of the available preventative equipment. One important piece of gear is the Innotex cancer prevention hood, which is worn above ventilation masks and below a firefighter’s helmet. The hoods have a shape similar to chainmail hoods that you might have seen in suits of armor at the former Higgins Armory in Worcester. It gathers around the face and covers the head, with flaps that cover the neck, back and upper shoulders.
The construction of these hoods is far more advanced than that found in the battle protection of medieval warriors though. The Innotex Hood has three carefully designed layers of protection. The exterior of the hood is a Nomex blend that looks like an average fleece garment. The middle layer is the working horse of the hood, made of a material that blocks carcinogenic particles which circulate in a structure fire. This middle layer also allows for significant air circulation while still acting as a barrier for carcinogens. The inner layer is made of a material that is designed to be closest to the wearer’s skin with a “superior wicking ability” which provides some cooling capacity for the wearer.
The moisture wicking and cooling are as important as the carcinogen filter because body heat and moisture from perspiration provide the ideal environment for carcinogens to settle into the pores of those exposed to structure fires. Recent studies found that among cancers found in retired or active firefighters, there was a higher number of cancers impacting parts of the body closer to heavy perspiration during the heat and physical exertion of firefighting: the groin, underarms, the abdomen and reproductive organs.
The cancer risk unique to firefighters comes primarily from airborne carcinogens created when synthetic household or workplace items burn in a structure fire. The number of ordinary items containing plastics or other materials, which can become toxic in a fire is almost limitless. Synthetic carpets, paint, foam linings or cushions can all create a hazard for firefighters beyond the fire itself.
Several studies in recent years have lent credibility to the previous suspicion that firefighters face this unique cancer risk. Although cancers have been diagnosed prominently in retired firefighters, these studies demonstrate the risk for mid-career firefighters as well and establish a connection to occupational conditions. One study published by the University of Fraser Valley in Canda looked at data from more than 29,993 firefighters over several decades to examine the risk. In that study, researchers found that cancer had begun to surpass cardiovascular disease as a cause of death in active and retired firefighters by 2016.
To counter this risk, local fire departments have taken steps to obtain additional personal protective equipment such as the Innotex hood. Fire departments are also implementing procedures to prevent further contamination after a fire call among firefighters, volunteers and part-time personnel who might assist during a call. Any clothing or gear must be decontaminated after being exposed to particulates at the site of a fire, including any personal attire that is worn under standard gear. Each member of the firefighting team must also shower and change clothing before leaving the station or moving on to another call.
Any items of clothing that are worn during a call for a structure fire must be put into a large industrial extractor at the fire station, which decontaminates the gear for future use. Otherwise, even minimal contaminants from burning synthetic material may be carried to another call site (not always another fire – fire departments respond to a wide variety of calls) or may be brought home to the firefighter’s family on their personal effects. This could also spread the cancer risk beyond the first responders who serve a community.
Departments should also have a “normal” washer and dryer for more day-to-day cleaning of clothing and materials that don’t have to be put into the industrial extractor. This expands the life of the extractor and prevents cross-contamination. While the Southbridge Fire Department has one extractor, they are in need of an ordinary washer and dryer.
The layout and construction of the new Southbridge fire station will take these new procedural and equipment needs into account. In the meantime, Gonynor and Parrettie note that a culture shift to emphasize cancer prevention is in progress.
The Cancer Prevention Committee of Southbridge Fire Department’s Local 2194 is making the effort to spread the word about the need for new cancer prevention gear and equipment. The committee fundraises for these items as well as a care fund for colleagues who are impacted by cancer while it educates the public about the newly documented risks of the profession.
The group will hold a fundraising event, its second annual Beer and Wine Tasting, Sunday, Oct. 14 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Maqui’s Function Hall, 61 Chestnut Street in Southbridge. Tickets can be purchased at the door or at the Southbridge Fire Department headquarters on Elm Street. The event is limited to 200 tickets and features a variety of local and regional breweries and vineyards. Tickets are $25 and include unlimited tasting, food and a tasting glass to commemorate the event.