Washington Post writes about firefighters and cancer

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.

Smoke from controlled burn causes two accidents on Kansas highway

Osage smoke highway accident controlled burn
Scene of two accidents on Highway 56 in Kansas, February 18. The photo was taken after visibility had improved somewhat. Photo courtesy of Kansas State Firefighters Association.

Smoke from a controlled burn on February 18 caused two accidents on Highway 56 in Kansas two miles east of the Osage-Lyon county line. The series of accidents began when a truck was hit from behind when it slowed as it entered the smoke and the vehicle in front of it also slowed down.

The second accident happened when other vehicles stopped in the smoke to help those in the first accident. One driver was parked partially in the roadway when she was hit by another vehicle which then kept moving and hit two pedestrians who were helping one of the drivers in the first accident. After injuring the pedestrians the vehicle then hit another car.

The Osage County Sheriff’s Office reported that three people were transported to hospitals and five vehicles were damaged.

STIHL recalls 100,000 chainsaws

(Updated at 1:09 p.m. MST February 24, 2017)

Stihl chain saw MS 461 recall
The STIHL MS 461 chainsaw, often used by wildland firefighters, is one of four models being recalled.

Today the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced a recall of 100,000 STIHL chainsaws that are at risk of fire and burn hazards. The saws being recalled are:

  • MS 461
  • MS 461 R
  • MS 461 R Rescue
  • GS 461 Rock Boss.

The first three are used by firefighters. The last two were not included in STIHL’s official recall notice but a company representative we talked to at the STIHL recall office confirmed they are also on the list.

STIHL Inc. has received 117 reports of pinched or leaking fuel lines but the company reports they are unaware of any damage or injuries caused by the possible defect.

Recalled chainsaws have a serial number between 173092800 and 181993952 under the front hand guard on the engine housing’s sprocket side. The models affected were sold for approximately $1,000 from July 2012 through December 2016.

The recommendation is that owners of the saws immediately stop using them and take them to an authorized STIHL dealer for a free inspection and repair.

STIHL MS 461 R
STIHL MS 461 R has the added wrap-around handle.
The MS 461 R Rescue
The MS 461 R Rescue has a tool holder, extra large wrap-around handle, chip deflector, and can have an optional depth limiter. It is often used by structural firefighters, according to STIHL, “to access trouble spots, provide additional ventilation, or assist with Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) operations”.
The GS 461 Rock Boss
The GS 461 Rock Boss is for cutting concrete.

MS 461’s are sometimes used by wildland firefighters for constructing fireline and felling trees. This model has been cited in at least one report of a different problem — vapor lock that can result in the engine dying. When the operator removes the gas cap to check on the fuel level, occasionally a “fuel geyser” sprays pressurized gas. This has caused serious burn injuries when the fuel ignites.

Here is a link to the official CPSC recall notice for the pinched or leaking fuel line issue. The STIHL website has a list of seven recalls for various products.

(After calling and talking with the STIHL recall office, the article was updated at 1:09 p.m. MST February 24, 2017 to include two other models of chainsaws that were recalled but not included in the official notice from Stihl and the CPSC. Those two additional saws are the MS 461 R Rescue and the GS 461 Rock Boss concrete saw)

Wildfires continue in Chile

Above: Tanker 03, a BAe-146, in Chile. Neptune photo.

The number of active wildfires in Chile has varied from week to week depending on the weather, but the drought-driven situation that has plagued Chile since December is still of great concern to the residents of the country —  especially since more than 1,000 homes burned in Santa Olga on January 25.

The tweet below refers to a fire in the Maule Region.

The 747 Supertanker returned to Colorado Springs on February 13 after being in Chile for three weeks. The Russian IL-76 is still there but is expected to depart on February 25.

Neptune’s Tanker 03, a BAe-146, arrived in the country February 4. It has completed 20 missions dropping on fires, but a spokesperson for the company told us today it has not flown since February 14. It is committed to remain in Chile through the end of this month.

IL-76 747 Supertanker air tanker chile
The Russian IL-76 (in the foreground) taxis past the 747, January 30, ,2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
IL-76 air tanker chile Santiago
The Russian IL-76 at Santiago, Chile January 30 shortly after it arrived in the country. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Red Flag Warnings February 23, 2017

The National Weather Service has posted Red Flag Warnings that expire Thursday evening for areas in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

All of the areas are expected to have dry fuels, strong winds, and low humidities.

The map was current as of 8:28 a.m. MT on Thursday. Red Flag Warnings can change throughout the day as the National Weather Service offices around the country update and revise their forecasts.

Research on firefighters that is not Open Access should be boycotted

For Throwback Thursday, here’s an article we originally published in 2011:

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Open Access logo
Open Access logo

We all hate paying for something and then not receiving what we paid for. That is what is happening now to taxpayers who pay for government-funded research and then have no access to the findings.

We have ranted about this before, and documented another example a few days ago when we discovered that it will cost us $41 to obtain a copy of the findings from research conducted by the University of Georgia. Associate Professor Luke Naeher and others found that  lung function decreases for firefighters who work on prescribed fires for multiple days and are exposed to smoke. Further, it showed that respiratory functions slowly declined over a 10-week season.

This is not the only research that has explored the effects of smoke on wildland firefighters, but it may significantly add to the limited body of knowledge we have on the topic. We won’t know, however, unless we pay a second time in order to see their conclusions.

Researchers at some organizations receive pay raises and promotions based partially on the “publish or perish” meme. A system that requires researchers to publish in journals that are not completely open to the public, is antiquated and has no place in 2011 when a paper can be published in seconds on the internet at little or no cost.

Some of the research that has been conducted on firefighters requires a great deal of cooperation from the firefighters, including for example, ingesting core temperature monitors, carrying a drinking water system that monitors every drink they take, and even lubricating and then inserting a rectal thermistor probe attached to wires.

The Boycott

There is no reason for firefighters to go to extreme lengths to help researchers advance the researcher’s career paths unless the firefighters can receive some benefits from the project. So, we are jumping on the idea proposed by Rileymon in a comment on the University of Georgia article:

Maybe it’s time to suggest that firefighter/research subjects boycott new research studies unless the findings are put into the Public Domain?

Here is what we are proposing:

  1. Firefighters, administrators, and land managers should not cooperate with researchers unless they can be assured that findings from the research will be available to the public at no charge immediately following the publication of the findings, or very shortly thereafter.
  2. Researchers should conform to the principles of Open Access.
  3. Scientists who assist in the peer review process for conferences or journals should pledge to only do so only if the accepted publications are made available to the public at no charge via the internet.

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UPDATE February 22, 2017: There is a sign that the new Trump administration will be even less transparent than his predecessor. A great deal of data is now unavailable on the White House open data portal. It is possible this is just an unannounced temporary change…. we’ll see.

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More information: