Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on July 1, 2016.

Goldfeder on Firefighter Cancer


What is the biggest safety issue facing the industry today?

Cancer is the big one—that is going to be one of our greatest challenges. One big reason is the fire environment itself—we’re arriving at a carcinogen-filled scene. Absorption by inhalation is less of a concern these days because we do have masks and we should be using them. Absorption through the skin is our biggest challenge right now.

Do we have a sense of the size of the problem?

No, there is no cancer registry. That is one of our highest priorities, to come up with a schematic to develop this registry. If a career firefighter goes to a hospital and checks in and they ask him his occupation, he says firefighter. If you ask a volunteer firefighter at the hospital what their job is, they say plumber or lawyer or whatever. There’s no accounting for the fact that there are 600,000–700,000 volunteer firefighters, so our numbers are skewed. According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, an estimated 1,000 firefighters die each year from cancer. That’s a very rough number, and it’s a huge number.

It’s much higher than anything else.

Cancer’s it. Even with a younger crowd of firefighters, if I ask them if anybody knows somebody with cancer, they all put their hands up. You probably don’t know a firefighter who has died in the line of duty, but you probably do know a firefighter that has or had cancer.

What can be done to reduce the risk?

We need to look at how we operate on the scene. We can’t stop going into smoky environments, since that’s what we do, and sprinklers of course can help address the problem. One of the biggest problems today is what’s inside today’s homes—the carpeting, all the plastic. Plastic burns off gasses like cyanide and related carcinogens, and that’s what’s really hurting us. Years ago, our fires were burning actual materials—grandma’s sofa was made of wood and cotton, with a natural-made covering. Today grandma’s furniture is all made of plastic, and so is everyone’s. Everyday there are new chemicals being introduced.

Another thing we’re looking for is proper decontamination of our equipment after a fire. It is very labor intensive, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. But even after decon, you get home and take a hot shower and you can still smell the smoke. Sometimes we like that—it’s cool, and we can say “Hey, we had a fire today.” But the problem is even with the best PPE today, and the best standards, the smoke is still permeating the bunker gear—that’s our issue. The bunker gear manufacturer that can come up with a way to show that they are measurably reducing the introduction of carcinogens will be a really successful bunker gear manufacturer. Right now most gear and materials are pretty much the same.

We’ve had some idea for a while that fire and smoke were related to cancer, but it sounds like there is a whole lot more awareness and work going on now.

Very much so. The world is certainly more focused on cancer. The science is greater, and the time has come to do something about it. Again, because of the Internet, we are so much more aware of firefighters dealing with cancer. Without the Internet we wouldn’t know. The International Association of Firefighters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, NFPA, and the Firefighter Cancer Support Network are all working aggressively together to figure out some of these solutions. Even so, firefighters need to use what they have to protect themselves. When you’re at a fire and think it’s out, don’t take off your mask and start breathing that crap. We need to take this seriously. The problem is you don’t feel the immediate effect. If something collapses on me I feel it right now and it hurts. If I’ve absorbed carcinogens it sits for a while. You cough, we’ve all done it, but little did we know what that was doing to us.

Is the needle starting to move?

In my area and some areas I visit, I now see a much more mature view on all of this. There was a time when we would never think of wearing an air pack to a vehicle fire, and now it’s rare to see a firefighter anywhere operating without one. So we’re getting there. But we are in a risky business, we are going into bad stuff and we still need to take risks. But we want to try and minimize those risks as much as we can. The bottom line is that knowledge makes the difference.