Washington Post writes about firefighters and cancer

firefighters smoke cancer cold brook prescribed fire

Above: Members of a hotshot crew work in smoke on the Cold Brook Prescribed Fire, October 23, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Very slow progress is being made toward recognizing the long term health risks of firefighters and more importantly, taking action to mitigate the effects.

This month another bill was introduced that would establish a national cancer registry for firefighters diagnosed with cancer, an occupational hazard that many organizations recognize as a presumptive disease in the profession. The bill is titled Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2017. A similar bill with 118 co-sponsors died a quick death in 2016, so there is little hope that this one will fare much better. This newest one has 12 co-sponsors as of today.

On Friday the Washington Post published an in-depth look at the topic in an article titled, Firefighters and cancer: Is a risky job even riskier? The authors interviewed several firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer and laid out some of the health-related risks of the job.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the final results of what is currently the largest study of cancer risk among career firefighters ever conducted in the United States. The study of about 30,000 firefighters over a 60-year span showed that compared with the general population, firefighters on average are at higher risk for certain kinds of cancer — mainly oral, digestive, respiratory, genital and urinary cancers.

It is important to provide treatment to firefighters that have been injured on the job, including those suffering from diseases that were likely caused by working in a hazardous environment.

It is also important to take steps to reduce the hazard in the first place. For wildland firefighters who don’t have the luxury of breathing air carried in a bottle on their back, avoiding cancer-causing smoke can be difficult. But in some cases supervisors can minimize the number of firefighters that are forced to work in heavy smoke, or rotate them into areas where there is less. A crew can have a small carbon monoxide detector to identify excessive exposure to the dangerous gas, which on a fire would also be associated with the presence of particulates and carcinogens.

Here is another quote from the Washington Post article:

“Smoke on your gear and smoke on your helmet used to be a sign that you’re an experienced firefighter,” said Lt. Sarah Marchegiani of the Arlington County Fire Department. “But now people just recognize it’s a hazard and not worth it.”

Nevada BLM engine crew
A Nevada BLM engine crew in 2016. Inciweb photo. The faces were blurred by Wildfire Today.

An issue that always creates some controversy on Wildfire Today is the fact that some firefighters feel that refusing to change out of very dirty Nomex even when clean clothes or a laundry service are available proves to their colleagues that they are cool, or experienced, or skilled, or manly. The fact is, the contaminants that accumulate on clothing, personal protective equipment, and line gear are dangerous. Having it in contact with your skin can cause it to be absorbed into the body. If the firefighter’s environment is warm their pores will open which allows chemicals to be absorbed even more quickly. Everybody that is knowledgeable about the issue agrees. Contaminants can even build up to the point where the fire resistance of the fabric is compromised, especially if it includes chainsaw oil or the residue of drip torch fuel.

Firefighter Close Calls reports on injuries and accidents in the fire world and has written about the hazards of contaminated fire gear. Here is an example from earlier this week:

Firefighter Close Calls Tweet

And below is a better photo of the helmet:
Cairns dirty helmet firefighter

The fact that a major manufacturer of personal protective equipment for firefighters uses gear in their advertising that is probably contaminated with carcinogens, is an indicator of the difficulty in solving this health-related problem.

firefighters, cancer,
Screenshot from Jason Curtis’ film about San Diego firefighters and the occurrence of cancer.

Information about the hazards of wood smoke:

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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20 thoughts on “Washington Post writes about firefighters and cancer”

    1. Probably not. That is the problem with being a forestry tech or range tech. I hope that changes someday but I’m not going to hold my breath.

    2. I was a firefighter for 37 years,13 was as a wildland firefighter. YES it applies to wildland also. The word FIREFIGHTER says it all stand the two together and ask people what are they they will say a firefighter. Structural firefighter breathing apparatus it last about30 min. Wildland firefighters will go all day for weeks for there carrier breathing smoke. And theres the wear on there backs,knees from heavy loads up and down mountains hot summers and cold winters. If you ask them they would say i wouldn’t have any other job they love it. My 13 years with U S Forest Service was best job and time i ever had. A firefighter said fighting a wildland fire is the best you’ll ever have.

  1. “refusing to change out of very dirty Nomex even when clean clothes or a laundry service are available proves to their colleagues that they are cool, or experienced, or skilled, or manly.”
    This is simply wrong and disrespectful. Clearly the author has not spent enough time working as a wildland firefighter to learn that laundry, a shower and even a decent meal is often a luxury during a 14-21 day tour on the fire line. This is coming from someone who has served as an engine crew member, a hotshot and a smokejumper for the last 12 seasons. Interesting article however; always in the back of my mind what the effects of serious smoke inhalation can produce down the road. It’s unavoidable in this job, you have to accept the terms and conditions. It’ a lot more natural sucking wood smoke then so many other carcinogens out there in other professions. Wildland fire is a hell of a job when your actually doing the work; not for the faint of heart.

    1. Chris-

      You wrote:

      Clearly the author has not spent enough time working as a wildland firefighter to learn that laundry, a shower and even a decent meal is often a luxury during a 14-21 day tour on the fire line.

      The author has almost three times your wildland fire experience. He knows how often a laundry service is available. That’s why he wrote “….even when clean clothes or a laundry service are available…”

    2. Agree Chris, laundry service…an occasional luxury. My 17 seasons have been close to yours. Being spiked out for multiple 14+ day assignments over the years, and enjoying every minute of it, has not change my desire to be clean. I have been a hotshot, engine crewmember, and now supervisory forestry technician. I have utilized laundry service throughout the years. Does that mean that my PPE was clean all the time, NO. Does that mean that i thought of myself as more manly, skilled, experienced or cool, when it was not, NO. Mr. Gabbert(author), you seemed to have gathered a little of your readers fire experience. Will you indulge us one day? And yes science is science. What is the science of exposure level of initial inhalation in extreme environments vs. my dirty clothes exposure after that environment? “Air” is able to contain PM 2.5, or less. What is clothing material able to hold/contain? Yes, let’s go there. i only seek to educate myself and may be a few others. It seems easy to blame the firefighter that doesn’t clean their PPE appropriately. Is that truly the reason that cancer patient/victims are high among us? PPE, or certain, specific types of exposure?

  2. I bet the writer of this story could try to get federal aid cause he got ink on him and it absorbed into his skin cause the air condition unit was broke and it got warm, not hot just warm and his pores opened up and the ink entered into his blood stream causing him ink poisoning maybe even cancer. Maybe before the article gets published uh, ask a few real firefighters some questions, or maybe get your ass out of the chair for 6-8 month and take a job as a firefighter and see if it’s possibe for a oxygen canister or maybe have time to wash your clothes when you just pulled a 15-18 hr. Day. Cutting line , humping up and down hill in direct sun, high temp. Windy Smokey conditions. With 45+ pounds of wieght, bees, snakes, aircraft, rubber neckers, rocks, snags, steeps slopes,and so on. If you’re really concerned about getting cancer from fighting forest fires, then you’re not really fighting anything, a few of us really don’t care if we get cancer, we just love the job, we save property, lives, trees, animals, just short of … I don’t really give flying @#$! If I get cancer, I just know that I did something I love and enjoy doing, and I saved some trees homes and lives.

  3. I agree with the comments above. I don’t think Bill did enough time on the line away from fire camp for days on end there are no showers, laundry, warm food,etc. When you spike out you don’t carry lots of extras including changes of clothes. I also take exception to showing a structure fire helmet. We may have been forestry techs but eating smoke is no joke. I ate smoke so many days I developed asthma, never had it before the Akerson Complex. My huband was a forestry tech, fire prevention tanker 35 years, they diagnosed him with cancer on his kidney two months ago. Next week he’s having it removed. The USDA Forest Service won’t accept culbability, ever! We used to mark timber with poisoned paint, many female forestry techs developed tumors on their uterus. Had to have hysterectomies, me included. No FS culpability. Proven connection, studies done, no culpability. Theres a reason FS categorizes its fire fighters as forestry technicians. They would have to pay better salaries, not going to change in my lifetime, maybe yours. Good luck.

  4. As usual when this subject comes up there are those who defend wearing contaminated clothing and line gear. And yes, a firefighter can only carry a certain number of changes of clothes on a 2-3 week assignment and laundry services are only rarely available. But none of that changes the science — the properties of clothing containing the by products of combustion and/or chainsaw oil.

    And it’s interesting how some folks who leave anonymous comments make incorrect assumptions about the job history and knowledge of the author, while asking us to believe claims about their own fire experience.

    1. I will not argue the science, our job 100% contributes to development of cancer. The bigger question is how do you force the hand of a government to recognize their employees as firefighters and provide presumptive legislation?

  5. Here is another thought which is very real, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among Firefighters, Police Officers, and First Responders. First Responder Suicide rates are higher then ever. I have been diagnosis with Accumlative Post Traumatic Stress Disorder endured over the 20 year career. It isn’t just one traumatic call I experienced. I’ve seen death, destruction, and chaos. With being under paid and OVER WORKED many first responders are sleep deprived and fatigued. To this day I dream vivid, graphic, and detailed images of those dead bodies, dying and injured people every night that I experienced the day I responded to their call for help. State Compensation Insurance Fund and the State of California have turned their backs on many MANY of their employees which, has caused not only financial hardships while those who are fighting the great fight of staying alive do not get the support they need but being removed from the passion we loved so much. I have been off work for a year now. I want to return to work, but Workers Compensation and State of California have separated employees as they believe PTSD is not a work related injury and not help the employee. Governor Brown has vetoed specific assistance to help our first responders with Work Related Injuries on the job. Cancer has recently been accepted as a LODD. PTSD or Suicide is not.

    1. Cancer has not been officially accepted as an LODD. Only recognized by the IAFF so once you die you get your name on a wall. I did 34 years of those same calls you are talking about, you have to learn to deal with it.

  6. I fought wildfires for 23 years, starting in 1981. I now have pre cancer of the esophagus. Also, I weighed 130 pounds, with fine bones. I have stress fractures in both wrists, and arthritis of the spine and ribs.

  7. We don’t issue enough nomex to folks for one.

    Second, it is very clear to me that dirty nomex and gear is a badge of honor and at the FFT2 level it is clearly a cool guy thing to do.

    We need to do a better job teaching our folks that clean gear is professional, doesn’t mean it isn’t used.

    There are a lot of times we work hard but a lot of times we have the time to clean clothes and wash our packs more.

  8. I was a wild land firefighter for 13 years started in 1999. In that time i only ever rember a laundy service on one fire and that was the biscuit fire in 04 i believe. I dont think it’s about clean clothes but more likely a dog pile of things to consider.
    If breathing clean air is a concern they would have offered us some sort of breathing filtration. The folded bandanna never did much for me nor did goggles. Im not saying im like everyone else or they are like me but i stood in all that smoke holding the line because it was my job it was fun and my friends were their with me.
    If there is a problem then someone in office needs to step up and do something i’ll be holding my breath while waiting. If any one of thinks the federal gov. Is going to do anything for us I say you were never paid to think.
    Don’t lose hope im just being a bit pessimistic i’ve held the line in worse conditions.

  9. According to a recent report on a San Francisco TV station, the SFFD is now issuing two sets of bunkers to all members. One set can be worn while the other set is being laundered after a fire. The Department is also installing washing machines in all 44 Firehouses.

    For those interested in an excellent read, consider “In the Mouth of the Dragon: Toxic Fires in the Age of Plastics” by Dr. Deborah Wallace. THe book was published in 1990 and is out of print but available from the usual sources.
    Much of the book discusses 6 famous fires including the 1975 NYC Telephone Exchange Fire, the MGM Grand Hotel and others.

    There are known cancer clusters around the US on municipal fire departments including San Francisco (Sporting goods warehouse fire involving ping pong balls) a Department in Florida involving a fire n a commercial fertilizer business and others. Deaths that can be attributed to operating at Ground Zero after 9/11 are approaching 200.

    Occupational Health in Wildland Firefighters is an emerging field. Some work is being done at the University of Montana. I am unaware of any cancer studies involving a wildland cohort.

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