Every week in the United States, a firefighter dies in the line of duty. In 2013 and 2014 this amounted to a total of 161 fatalities.
Firefighters are hugely respected for their heroic acts of bravery, putting their lives on the line to protect us. And yet the risks they take on our behalf are not limited to fire, smoke, explosions and building collapse.
They are also at a considerably increased risk of cancer because of their high exposure to the toxic chemicals that are released in a blaze.
So, you may ask, what does this have to do with you? A lot. Keep reading. . .
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This risks from toxic chemicals don’t affect only firefighters. It’s a hazard that reflects the threat we are all exposed to every single day. As you’ll see in moment, the most dangerous of the chemicals that are killing firefighters are found in every home and affect each of us, albeit in smaller amounts.
More likely to die of cancer than fighting fires
Fire officials in Boston believe their members are 2½ times more likely to get cancer than the general public, and the International Association of Firefighters states that 60% will lose their lives this way.
Kelly Fox of the Washington State Council of Firefighters says that “nationally almost daily, another firefighter is reported to have died from cancer.”
Keith, a retired firefighter from Miami, is fighting prostate cancer at the age of 34. He tells us that around one in three members of his department have had cancer.
Although he doesn’t ascribe every single case as being down to the job, he says it’s clear that cancer is a real danger they have to contend with, aside from their work.
A study carried out by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, published in 2014, included over 30,000 firefighters in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco who worked between 1950 and 2009.
The researchers found an increased risk, particularly for digestive, respiratory and urinary cancers. Their major finding, reported for the first time, was that firefighters had more than double the risk of malignant mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by asbestos.
Another study of 16,422 male firefighters in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland who were followed for 45 years found increased risk of prostate cancer and skin melanoma in those aged 30 – 49. For those over 70 there was an increased risk of non-melanoma skin cancer, multiple myeloma, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Grace LeMasters from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine reviewed 32 studies. She believes firefighters could be at increased risk for ten or more cancers.
And Susan Shaw at the School of Public Health University at Albany, New York says that “the longer you’re a firefighter, the greater your chance of getting some kind of cancer.”
We live in a chemical soup
There are more than 80,000 chemicals in production and use in America according to The Toxic Substances Control Act Inventory.
And The President’s Cancer Panel believes “the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.”
These chemicals include noxious substances such as benzene, formaldehyde, styrene, asbestos, hydrogen cyanide, perfluorinated chemicals, polycystic aromatic hydrocarbons, phthalates, dioxins, arsenic, lead, mercury and so on; the list is endless.
Natural materials that are used to furnish properties such as metal, wood, glass and cloth have increasingly been replaced with foams, plastics, acrylics and coatings that contain a large array of chemicals.
When they catch fire, these synthetic chemicals burn faster and create considerably more smoke and toxic gases.
The chemicals that firefighters are exposed to are no different to those we are all exposed to (although burning can create new chemical structures). The difference is that they inhale and absorb more of them. For instance, the skin’s rate of absorption can increase by as much as 400% for every 5º rise in body temperature.
Chemicals are not trapped inside materials only to be let loose when they burn. Far from it, these poisonous substances are found in almost everything in a modern home and are released into the air continually.
Whether it’s benzene from furniture wax, formaldehyde from cleaning materials or perfluorated chemicals from non-stick coatings, we can certainly reduce our exposure by the choices we make, but we cannot get away from them entirely.
If getting cancer from non-stick coatings sounds like a stretch, see our article on cookware in Issue #49. For more about chemicals in clothes, see Issue #360. And if you want to know about the toxins in your mattress, check out Issue #261
The problem of flame retardants
One particular problem of modern living is the flame retardant. Using chemicals to prevent fires sounds like a good idea, but according to critics it hasn’t worked out that way.
Even firefighters themselves want to ban some of the 175 flame retardant compounds that are believed to be cancer-causing.
Flame retardants in furniture only provide, on average, an additional three seconds to escape from fires, yet they double the amount of smoke, increase toxic gases ten-fold and create forty times as much soot.
Polyurethane foam has particularly high levels – up to 30% by weight. Flame retardants are found in upholstered chairs, couches, carpeting, cushions, mattresses, and in children’s products like car seats, baby carriers, nursing pillows and sleepwear.
Cellulose insulation has about 20% by weight, while plastic televisions and computer casings can also be up to 20%.
Apart from cancer, the health concerns linked with flame retardants include male infertility, smaller babies, birth defects, early onset of puberty, lower IQ and child behavioral problems.
Because of their widespread use, it’s not surprising that dust samples containing these chemicals were found in every home tested, and it’s believed that nine out of ten Americans have one or more flame retardant chemical in their bodies.
Polychlorinated biphenyls were banned in the 1970s when they were considered to be a cancer risk. Polybrominated biphenyls were also banned in the same decade as were polybrominated diphenyl ethers in 2005.
Each time a flame retardant chemical is removed it is replaced by another that could be just as harmful as the one it replaced.
Commenting on this, Susan Shaw said, “The chemical industry replaces the phased-out chemical but with something similar, but it has one bond difference. Scientists are trying to follow the market and figure out, ‘what’s in it now?’ It’s extremely frustrating.”
Considering the choking, toxic tons of fire retardants in our homes, you might wonder how many lives they actually save. The best figure I can come up with is that about 2,650 people die each year in residential fires and 12,890 are injured. These losses are tragic, to be sure, but the numbers are tiny in a nation of 320 million people. Is it worth exposing hundreds of millions of people to toxic chemicals (and endangering the lives of more than a million firefighters) for such a small benefit?
How to reduce your exposure from flame retardants
Each state has its own rules but in May, 2015 Minnesota agreed to phase out four of ten chemicals that Minnesota Professional Firefighters asked to be removed.
And in California, new regulations have been imposed which mean that furniture manufacturers needn’t use flame retardants. From 1st January, 2015 they must also label products for sale in the state indicating whether they contain these chemicals.
Since an earlier standard in California was adopted nationwide, it’s possible the same might happen with the new directive.
Already a number of the larger furniture chains have asked their suppliers to no longer use flame retardants, so check labels and ask retailers whether the furniture you want to buy is retardant-free.
You can also lower your exposure by:
- Choosing natural fabrics like cotton, wool, leather, silk and jute which are less flammable
- Buying organic and ‘green’ alternatives
- Damp mopping and dusting floors and furniture
- Vacuuming carpets with a high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA) filter
- Regularly washing hands, especially before eating
As for the current generation of firefighters, it’s probably a case of too little, too late to reduce the incidence of cancer, especially as it accounts for just one class of the many chemicals they are exposed to.
Bill Hoover, Fire Captain at Kirkland, Washington says he has lost count of the number of funerals for cancer victims he has been to.
He himself has been treated for cancer twice.
“You go to bed knowing there’s a pretty good chance it’s gonna come back again,” he said.
What if your cell phone could warn you that you’ve got cancer? This wonder may not be too far in the future. If you missed this news in our last issue, you can read it now just below.