USA – A new bill aimed at tackling increased cancer rates among fire fighters is under consideration in Indiana. On 16 August 2017, Trey Hollingsworth, US representative for Indiana’s ninth congressional district, met with local fire service members the proposed bill. The Fire Fighter Cancer Registry Act, co-sponsored by Hollingsworth, would provide the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with the funding and capability to collect and analyse data related to cancer incidents within the profession. It would create a national, voluntary registry for fire fighters who have been diagnosed with cancer. A 2010 study by the CDC of almost 30 000 career fire fighters across the country discovered they had a nine percent higher rate of cancer diagnoses and 14 percent higher rate of cancer-related deaths compared to the general population. “We need to make sure that we do everything we can to support them, increase awareness about this and do research into what we can do to prevent a spike in cancer for those who are fighting fires,” Hollingsworth said during the meeting, which was held at Jeffersonville Fire Station Number Two.
The congressman hosted a roundtable discussion to hear concerns about this issue and others with representatives of the Jeffersonville, New Albany and Clarksville fire departments as well as state and local fire fighters’ associations. Other topics included maintaining federal grants for agencies and addressing mental health and stress among fire fighters. “I hope this will be the beginning of a dialogue about how we can continue to support at every single level and every single way those that put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of the rest of us,” Hollingsworth said.
CDC data on cancer rates among fire fighters tells the story of what many have witnessed for years. To Thomas Hanify, president of the Professional Fire Fighters Union of Indiana, it’s personal. “I can tell you dozens of my co-workers that died early deaths right after retirement,” Hanify said.
Fire fighters are not only more likely to be diagnosed with certain kinds of cancer, but also their chances of getting lung cancer and dying from leukemia directly increase as exposure to fire increases over time, the study found. Twice as many fire fighters in the study as the general population were diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, a very rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
“We’re not fighting fires in wood and paper any longer. It’s all plastic and as it burns, it releases carcinogens,” said Joe Hurt, president of the Jeffersonville Fire Fighters’ International Association of Fire Fighters Local 558. “Everything that comes off these fires is a carcinogen. It’s getting in our skin, it’s getting in our clothes, it’s getting in our gear, coming back into our firehouses.”
Decades ago, fire fighters weren’t taking necessary precautions against exposure to those carcinogens, Hanify said. Service members would wear their gear into their bunk rooms and store it there, which Hanify called a death wish. “Finally, we’re recognising this is an occupational hazard for fire fighters and for years we’ve been too foolish, too ignorant, too macho to say, ‘Hey, let’s take care of this, and let’s do it right,'” Hanify said.
The Jeffersonville Fire Department has taken steps to reduce risks over the years, Chief Eric Hedrick said. Fire fighters no longer store their gear in places of exposure like bunks and kitchens. The department is working to buy a second set of gear for service members so there is one available while the other is being sanitised. “We’re doing small things to try to eliminate the risk,” Hedrick said. He believes the Fire Fighter Cancer Registry Act could help achieve bigger solutions. The bill recently passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and now awaits approval from the full House of Representatives.