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  • Writer's pictureJohn Larrimer

Occupational Diseases Part 1: Are Firefighters at Higher Risk for Cancer?

Occupational diseases are illnesses that can develop after exposure to certain workplace conditions or substances. Asbestos is a classic example. Long-term exposure to asbestos may cause asbestosis or mesothelioma. Some occupations put workers at a much higher risk for developing occupational diseases. Firefighters are especially vulnerable to these illnesses. In fact, the cancer risk among firefighters is a frequently debated subject.

The International Association of Fire Fighters estimates that 60 percent of career firefighters die from cancer. Firefighters are frequently exposed to burning consumer goods, which contain large amounts of toxic chemicals. When these consumer products burn, they produce toxic smoke and soot. This soot can stick to equipment and skin, exposing firefighters to high levels of carcinogenic toxins.

You may be thinking, “firefighters are covered head-to-toe in gear, so how are they exposed?” Turnout gear used by firefighters (the gear they put on quickly on their way to fires) has crevices where this smoke and soot can come into contact with skin. In addition, extreme heat boosts the absorption rate of skin.

For these reasons, firefighting has been connected with an increased risk of developing multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate, testicular and other cancers.

Can We Reduce the Cancer Risk Among Firefighters?

There may be ways for fire stations to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals, such as decontamination procedures. Some fire departments use wet wipes, garden hoses, extractors and other equipment to decontaminate gear covered in toxic soot. Firefighters may also benefit from showering after returning to the station.

Prematurely removing gear should also be discouraged. There is an “overhaul” period after putting out fires where embers can still expose firefighters to these chemicals. Cancer does not have to remain an occupational risk to firefighters. It is up to fire stations to make positive changes that can benefit these brave men and women.

Ohio recently passed Senate Bill 27, which extends workers compensation benefits to firefighters with cancer. The Ohio workers comp lawyers at Larrimer & Larrimer, LLC can help firefighters or their families explore options for benefits.

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