By James Ellison
MAYODAN, N.C., May 20, 2018 — The alarm doesn’t go off every minute at the fire station in this rural stretch of North Carolina by the Virginia state line.
Car wrecks, medical emergencies and rescues otherwise keep the Northwest Rockingham Volunteer Fire Department busy. But there is a deadly, unseen danger lurking when the fire bell rings.
Firefighters have higher cancer risks than the general population. It’s the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths. Just ask Mason James, chief of the Rockingham County volunteers. “In the last five years, firefighters have tried to pioneer the move to get our gear clean. It’s pretty much at the forefront of what we do.”
Substantial evidence connects firefighting with increased rates of cancer. In Boston, the nation’s oldest fire department and one of the busiest, Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn called it an “epidemic.”
The research points to the kinds of blazes being fought today from big cities to small towns. Homes and businesses are filled with plastics and synthetic materials. The chemicals can explode and spread a toxic soot over firefighters.
“Think about the gases that go into these products in houses — carpets, countertops,” Mayodan’s James said. “These things are made of chemicals that go right into our clothes and then are absorbed by our skin.”
The danger has existed long before the frightening cancer rate became known among first responders in New York to the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
David Ranes, chief of logistics at the Cary, N.C., fire department, said several firefighters in the fast-growing Raleigh suburb have been diagnosed with cancer. “While there’s no way to directly link the cases to carcinogen exposures, some of them go right in line with the research and studies you see about the various cancers that firefighters are at a higher risk of contracting.”
So what’s to be done? After a fire, Ranes said, it’s been Cary’s practice for the past 18 months to hose down a firefighter on the spot.
“Any time you go to a fire where you have been exposed to carcinogens and your gear has sooted up, we should be ‘gross deconning’ at the scene,” he said. “That’s taking good streams of water, rinsing the heavy particulate off your gear, and then bagging up the gear, taking it back to the station.”
Ranes said the next step in decontamination is to wipe neck, hands and face areas because the fire service has seen higher rates of thyroid cancer. “The hotter the skin, the higher the absorption rate,” he said.
Then, at the station, turnout gear goes into a “washer extractor.” That’s trade argot for a heavy duty, commercial front-load washing machine capable of dealing with up to 65 pounds of protective clothing.
Those procedures Cary follows are in line with the latest report from the Fire Protection Research Foundation, issued in February this year.
That report recommends more frequent cleaning of firefighter clothing. Sooty, grimy gear is no longer a badge of honor. “It has only been in the last generation of firefighters that the culture of the fire service towards maintaining clean gear has evolved,” the report’s lead author, Jeffrey Stull, writes.
The report does not, however, specify how best to clean clothing and equipment. Research is under way between various testing agencies and cleaning product manufacturers. For now, individual fire departments are on their own and are collectively conducting a loose, nationwide research project to determine how clean is clean.
The Fire Protection Research Foundation has previously conducted a study evaluating how well current procedures remove contaminants. Materials that are easy to contaminate may also be the same materials that are easy to decontaminate, the report said. In the same way, materials that are hard to contaminate are also hard to decontaminate.
James Ellison covered police and fire news in Yonkers and Mount Vernon, N.Y., in the 1970s.