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Firefighter’s Gear Puts Responders at High Risk for Cancer

Firefighters hear the alarm ring, put their suits on beside their beds, and frantically dash to the fire pole to take them down to the truck garage. That’s the sequence we’re used to seeing, but it doesn’t happen quite like that nowadays.

The firefighter culture has changed dramatically in recent years due to waves of health concerns and elevated cancer risks that firefighters face.

“In hindsight I think you’ve always kind of known there is a cancer risk,” firefighter Jacob Ross said. “But with some of the things that have come out I think you’re starting to see how much of an issue it really is with the change in building materials and what people have in their homes nowadays.”

According to a CDC federal report, firefighters have more than double the risk of developing various forms of cancer. The most common cancer types include mesothelioma, leukemia, lung, bladder and prostate cancer.

“We’ve read about it in the paper,” Ross said. “[Around here] I think we all recognize it, and becoming more aware of it. The department is really doing what they can to acknowledge it and take the steps to provide correct cleaning equipment for us.”

While reports have been increased recently, there wasn’t any awareness until a decade ago.

“I think the awareness started around 10-12 years ago,” lieutenant paramedic John Mathis, a 20-year veteran of the department said. “When [a friend] started years ago in Kansas City, Kansas, the old guys didn’t wear air packs. They’d retire and be dead within 3, 4, 5 years.”

After a fire, responders are often covered in soot, burnt plastic and polyester fibers from the buildings they were in. The combination is toxic if not taken care of immediately.

“I get my guys headed to the showers as quick as I can,” Mathis said. “Over the years the gear has became lighter and easier to move in, but in terms of cancer nothing has really changed that much.”

The cleaning of the gear is a major focal point of the department. Bunker gear, the full suit that is worn at a fire, used to be stored right next to the firefighter’s bedside. With the chemicals the gear contracts while in the line of duty, it is now kept in the garage near the truck. Maintaining the cleanliness of the gear is a part many in the department wish would be improved.

“The department is pushing towards getting a second set of gear, and that’s going to be huge,” Ross said. “We’ll be able to come back and take the gear off we just wore in a fire out of service, and have it washed and dried thoroughly before switching it back out with the second set of gear to be cleaned.”

Today, firefighter gear is washed in a single household washer and dryer with extra-strength detergent. The set-up is unable to wash the bulk of a firefighter’s equipment all at once, and at times may not be cleaned thoroughly. The department hopes the Lawrence City Commission will allocate enough money for a specially designed washer.

“[An extractor] has different chemicals that come down and is designed to really remove all those different toxins from our gear,” Ross said. “Once we’re able to get one of those or however many we’re able to budget, they will be very beneficial to ensure we’re getting a very thorough cleaning.”

The health risks are evident in many different cases, but the call to duty remains powerful for those at the station.

“I love helping people,” Ross said. “I love working with people. That’s worth the risk to me”