The culture of the fire service needs to change to reduce firefighters’ exposure to carcinogens and combat climbing cancer rates in firefighters, according to advocates.
Brian F. McQueen gave a presentation entitled “Cancer in the Fire Service … Why Are Firefighters Dying?” to Knox and Lincoln County firefighters in the Ronald E. Dolloff Auditorium at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro on Tuesday, April 26.
McQueen is the director of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, as well as a 39-year volunteer firefighter and a survivor of a type of cancer known as B-cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
“It’s the fastest-growing cancer in the fire service today,” McQueen said, quoting an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City who diagnosed him with the cancer on Dec. 24, 2013.
Since his diagnosis, McQueen has become an advocate for change in the fire service and legislation to support firefighters with cancer.
“Cancer is the most dangerous and unrecognized threat to the health and safety of firefighters,” McQueen said.
The growth in cancer rates among firefighters has a direct connection to the widespread use of household chemicals and plastics. Flame retardants are a key concern.
“Flame retardants in furniture and drapes are killing us,” McQueen said.
Modern house fires “are more in line with hazmat incidents” when it comes to the dangers of exposure, according to McQueen. Fires at businesses and car fires pose other dangers in the form of “highly concentrated toxic agents.”
Exhaust from fire trucks – which largely run on diesel fuel – also contains carcinogens, and trucks often idle in fire stations for long periods of time.
McQueen calls on fire chiefs and officers to take steps to limit their exposure to this threat, although those steps require a dramatic shift in culture.
“I always thought the dirtier- and saltier-looking (personal protective equipment) the better it was, because that was a badge of courage,” McQueen said. “I used to have it hanging in my locker and say take a look at that – pretty dirty, isn’t it? That’s a firefighter. Take at look at that melted helmet – that’s a firefighter.”
Little did McQueen know, his dirty turnout gear was full of carcinogens. The image of the heroic firefighter, his face and gear black with soot, is hurting firefighters who go without masks or wear dirty gear to cultivate a “macho” look.
Other problems have more to do with convenience – many firefighters place their dirty turnout gear into the back of their personal vehicles after a call, then store it in their homes.
While this seems logical for volunteer firefighters who have to respond to calls at all hours of the day and night, it endangers not only the firefighters, but also their families, according to McQueen.
McQueen and others who are working to raise awareness of the issue have a number of recommendations for firefighters.
Firefighters should wear their self-contained breathing apparatus – also known as air masks, air packs, or SCBA – from the beginning of a call to the end, even during the “overhaul” phase when the fire is out.
The CANCER acronym contains more recommendations: Clean your hood after fires, Always shower after every fire, Never place dirty (personal protective equipment) in living areas, Clean your (personal protective equipment) regularly, Exhaust is deadly, and Remember to get yearly physicals.
McQueen also encourages firefighters to stock sanitary wipes in order to avoid ingesting carcinogens when they eat and drink with dirty hands at a fire scene.
Fire stations increasingly have special laundry facilities for turnout gear, and firefighters should have multiple sets of turnout gear – a recommendation drawing some murmurs from the audience, as many small towns struggle to keep their firefighters in one set of the expensive gear.
McQueen appealed to the firefighters’ love for their families to motivate them to take precautions.
“Those are the people you leave behind when you die of cancer,” he said.
“I’m asking you, when you leave today, to go out and change the culture in the state of Maine, in each of your departments,” McQueen said. “Please, go out, educate them, make cancer education a priority, ’cause that’s what we need to do, so that we don’t have to suffer like those people suffered.”
The Lincoln County Emergency Management Agency and the Lincoln County Fire Chiefs Association were sponsors of the presentation, along with Knox County organizations.