How Cancer Can Follow Firefighters Long After The Flames Go Out

Jan 5, 2019
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Firefighting is dangerous - raging flames, choking smoke, hot, floating ash - but what about the long-term health effects that persist after the fire's been doused and firefighters have gone home? The Chicago Tribune investigated links between fighting fires and deadly cancers that can catch up to those first responders long after they leave a scene. Karen Ann Cullotta reported the story, and she told us she started looking into it after two firefighters in the Chicago area died.

KAREN ANN CULLOTTA: I wrote obituaries for both of them, and I was kind of taken aback that they were both young, and these were what was being called line-of-duty deaths cancer deaths. So I started asking around different fire departments and saying, you know, is this something you're seeing? Is this something that's being talked about? And without exception, every department I spoke with said this is pretty much all we're talking about.

SIMON: Is it the toxic smoke? What is it?

CULLOTTA: Yeah. So there's just - there's a lot of questions - unanswered questions. And while there's been research into this for years, it's still unfolding. They've always known that, of course, inhaling smoke is dangerous. But now, these studies are looking at these toxins that are in the smoke and that settle on the skin. So it's not just inhalation. It's actually getting into the skin and into the blood stream from exposed areas.

SIMON: Are there actually higher rates of cancer among firefighters?

CULLOTTA: The study that really has looked at this long and hard was through the CDC through NIOSH - National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. They studied about 30,000 firefighters, and what they found was that there was higher rates of certain types of cancer than the general U.S. population. That was primarily digestive, oral, respiratory, urinary system cancers. There was also twice as many malignant mesothelioma cancers than you'd find in the typical population. But they can't say whether it's more or less than in decades past. There just wasn't the data, the central database, and that's something that this cancer registry that Congress passed this past summer - they're hoping they're going to have this data now.

SIMON: An anecdotal impression, of course, is that there are just more electronics and plastics in homes and apartments nowadays. Does that contribute to it?

CULLOTTA: Yes, you're spot on. So the example they gave me, some of the researchers, is if you look at an old couch that was made of wood and horsehair and cotton, I mean, then you look at polyurethane and those are the modern synthetics - there is - you can actually find it online on the Underwriters Laboratories' website. They set a candle to two different living rooms, and the room with the old furnishings takes about 30 minutes to turn over where it's fully engulfed in flames. If you look at the modern synthetics, it's about three minutes.

SIMON: Are there things that fire departments can do to try and minimize this hazard?

CULLOTTA: Absolutely. And, you know, one of the things that I was most astounded by was that 70 percent of firefighters are volunteers. And so it becomes really problematic in terms of parity in these preventive practices. However, the good news is without exception all the researchers I spoke with said that you can, with just soap and water, detox on the scene - washing off your gear, using these kind of baby wipes on the scene trying to get that soot off and so forth. But, of course, the bigger issue is uniforms, having an extra set of gear. And something like that is about $3,000 per firefighter. So when you're talking about not just volunteer fire service but also from impoverished communities - that the money is just not there right now.

SIMON: I have been fortunate to do a number of stories over the years with firefighters in Chicago, as a matter of fact. And they don't like to be told you ought to do the job more safely.

CULLOTTA: You bring up a huge issue, kind of that image of the soot-covered firefighter as a badge of honor, they're really working hard to dispel that. And any time you see that soot, to look at it as this is not something that we should be excited or proud about. It's something that's dangerous. That soot is just - it's toxic.

SIMON: Karen Ann Cullotta of the Chicago Tribune, thanks so much for being with us.

CULLOTTA: Thanks so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.