Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on July 1, 2017.

Great Awakening

The growing momentum around the problem of firefighter cancer

My oldest brother, John, became a firefighter in Lexington, Massachusetts, in the late 1960s. Among the department’s four recruits the year he joined was a young man named Ken Donnelly. Kenny, as we called him, served 37 years in the department before he “retired” to become a state senator who championed, among other things, emergency responders and public safety. Late last summer, Kenny was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. He died in April at the age of 66.

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Kenny’s story is familiar to almost anyone with any connection to the fire service. And we’re finally doing something about it.

Although cancer is hardly a new affliction, and despite multiple studies going back decades showing elevated risks of cancer for firefighters due to at-work exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, it wasn’t until recently that fire departments large and small began thinking more seriously about it. Thankfully, we now seem to be in the midst of a great awakening in the fire service and beyond about the cancer risk, and a collective movement is underway to address it. Researchers have a huge role to play in this effort, not only to offer assistance on how to combat cancer in the fire service but also to provide independent technical information to inform policy.

There are many challenges associated with that task. For one, precise numbers and proving causation are especially elusive when it comes to the cancer problem. This is true for a variety of reasons, including the latency of symptoms, or the tendency of cancer to appear decades after exposures. Morbidity vs. mortality is an issue, the fact that people keep working after being diagnosed, sometimes for decades. There are many different types of cancer, and not all of them are related to firefighting. There’s the challenge of what’s referred to as “research cohort limitations,” or studies that are generally related to white males to achieve statistical validity. Firefighting exposure tracking can be difficult, since exposure can vary among firefighters throughout their careers. Cancer can be caused by exposures related to other work that has nothing to do with firefighting. Retired or former firefighters are often inadvertently omitted from data collections.

Despite the challenges, ongoing projects are proliferating—the hope is that all of this work will help shrink current knowledge gaps. At least two important fire service cancer research studies are happening at NFPA. The Fire Protection Research Foundation’s three-year AFG-funded project on “PPE Cleaning Validation,” now halfway complete, looks at how to effectively clean protective gear that has been exposed to harmful chemicals so it no longer poses a danger. Another project, the “Campaign for Fire Service Contamination Control,” seeks to develop solid technical information for education programs addressing health and safety risks of contaminant exposure.

Importantly, the increase in research on firefighter cancer is not happening in a vacuum. The cancer issue is now regularly a primary theme at conferences and workshops, including the recent NFPA Conference & Expo held in Boston. In addition, mainstream articles in the media are continually reinforcing the importance of the effort, including pieces in The Atlantic, Boston Magazine, and NFPA Journal. Codes and standards are also reexamining what changes are appropriate, as evidenced by the technical committee for NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, looking at adding key contamination control revisions.

All of this activity is encouraging and we are making progress, but the challenges remain enormous and the work is just beginning. But we will continue and we are dedicated. We owe it to Kenny Donnelly and the many others who died too young after spending their professional careers serving others.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.