Transcript from Today Show video: Cancer is Killing Firefighters – Toxins Found in Burning Materials
We see them at their most heroic, racing towards danger when everyone else is trying to escape.
And we honor their sacrifice when they lose their lives to the flames.
But in firehouses across the country, more are dying – not from the fires, but from a silent killer: cancer.
Captain Stefani: “You don’t know from one day to the next who’s going to get sick.”
Retired Captain Tony Stefani started the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation in 2006, after his own battle with the disease.
Natalie Morales: “How many friends have you personally lost from cancer?”
Captain Stefani: “Way too many. Out of the five of us that contracted transitional cell carcinoma in this firehouse, two of us are still alive.”
The numbers are shocking. Stefani’s foundation is currently working with 96 active and retired firefighters battling various forms of cancer. But, in San Francisco, more than 300 have been lost since the early 2000’s, and departments across the country are facing similar grim statistics. The job has always been dangerous, but why have cancer rates risen so high?
Researchers say today’s fires are different. Modern building materials and household goods contain fire retardants, plastics, and petroleum products made up of chemicals and when they burn they create toxic gases that seep into a firefighter’s body.
Chief Nicholson: “We’re working in a toxic soup when we go to a fire.”
Chief Janine Nicholson is a breast cancer survivor, something she shares with 15% of female firefighters in the San Francisco Fire Department – that’s 25% higher than the national average. While cancers in women firefighters have not been studied as much as those in men, studies are under way to determine the link between toxins and breast cancer.
Chief Nicholson: “I’ve often said there is a cancer sniper in the fire service and it’s not if, it’s not when, but what colleague of ours is going to be the next one to come down with cancer.”
Firefighter uniforms, known as turn-out gear, do protect from heat and flames, but not from chemical particles and gases the uniforms absorb. And when the body heats up, the risk increases dramatically.
Chief Nicholson: “If my body temperature rises five degrees, the absorption rate in my body goes up 400%.”
A statement from the American Chemistry Council, which represents major chemical companies, says firefighters face toxic fumes regardless of what materials are used.
Stefani and other firefighter advocates are calling for increased regulation on chemicals used in common household items and building materials. In the meantime, the San Francisco fire department is taking measures to reduce the risks, like installing special washing machines to extract particles from fire gear. And firefighters that once slept with their gear nearby, not store it away in lockers near the station floor.
Stefani says the once macho firehouse culture is changing, too.
Captain Stefani: “When I was on the job over that 28 year period, believe it or not, I probably only cleaned my stuff a few times. Firefighters always wore their turnouts, their jackets and their pants, filthy.”
Now, firefighters hose each other off after every blaze and exercise when they get back to the station to sweat out the toxins – simple but crucial steps to cope with a threat less spectacular than burning buildings but far more deadly.
Chief Stefani: “You look at the positive aspects of the job and you do your best to keep yourself in shape, you do your best to try and eliminate these exposures, but it’s still in the back of the mind – tomorrow am I going to be sick?”