Database for firefighters would aim to aid cancer research

By: Mary Beth Almond, Terry Oparka | C&G Newspapers | Published May 3, 2017

 Decontamination of turnout gear is important after fighting a fire to ensure that residue and products of combustion get off of gear and skin.

Decontamination of turnout gear is important after fighting a fire to ensure that residue and products of combustion get off of gear and skin.

Photo provided by the Rochester Fire Department


Rochester Fire Chief John Cieslik, who has been on the job for 42 years, said fires have drastically changed over the years.

“In the old days, we used to just worry about common products — burning wood, cotton and those types of things. Nowadays with fires, we have so many of the new products, with the synthetics and the petroleums, that the fires burn a lot differently, along with the products of combustion,” he said. “To be honest with you, in many cases we do not know what is being generated when the fires are burning — just because of the combination of the materials and the heat generated and how the product decomposes — so cancer is starting to become a huge issue for firefighters.”

Cieslik said cancer is now the No. 1 killer of firefighters.

“Over the years, we started to see some association between the rising firefighter deaths coming from nonfirefighter incidents.It wasn’t dying on the job — it was dying after the job,” he said. Nearly two-thirds of firefighters in their career will develop cancer — some while being on the job, some after they are retired — compared to just 20 percent of the common population, according to a recent study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Despite all the fire codes, protective equipment and training, Cieslik said, he’s seen the epidemic firsthand.

“At first, it just seemed like bad luck. You would hear about friends who had cancer or died of cancer. And then I started to see some articles coming out — about two or three years ago — and it really started to interest me from a safety standpoint and also being the chief,” he said. “The No. 1 cancers that are hitting firefighters are things like respiratory cancer, bladder cancer, colon cancer, prostate — these are all cancers that are a lot higher rates in firefighters than they are with anyone else.”

Over the years, Cieslik has lost many friends and co-workers to cancer, and he knows many more who are currently battling the disease.

“The sad thing is, a lot of firefighters are getting cancer and being forced to retire off the job or getting cancer after they retire, and none of that is compensated for, like a workers comp would be. That’s one of the things that they are trying to do: to get recognition for firefighter cancer that it is caused by the job, not necessarily genetics or other things. Cancer is terrible, regardless of how you look at it, but when the job that you dedicate your life to, to try to protect people, causes it, and then later on that job takes your life or affects you or your family, it is just terrible,” he said.

Lawmakers have proposed legislation that they say aims to track and respond to the health care needs of firefighters.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, co-sponsored legislation to establish a national registry to monitor cancer diagnoses in firefighters.

According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, nearly 60 percent of firefighters will die from cancer.

“Creating this voluntary registry is a good first step toward determining the unique risks to firefighters’ health,” Peters said in a prepared statement. “This information will allow us to research preventive techniques and design better protective equipment for our first responders, as well as develop advanced, effective medical treatments to provide the best care to firefighters diagnosed with cancer.”

“This bill was introduced in February of this year and was referred to the (Senate) Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions,” explained Allison Green, press secretary for Peters.

The International Association of Fire Fighters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the Congressional Fire Services Institute and the International Association of Fire Fighters, Michigan Chapter, support the bill.

“Firefighters are exposed to potentially harmful toxins every day as they work to protect our homes, businesses and communities,” Mark Docherty, president of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union, said in a prepared statement. “By learning more about the risks firefighters face in the line of duty, we can improve on-the-job safety and help prevent and treat the life-threatening illnesses and health consequences they are more likely to face down the road.”

According to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters have a 14 percent increased risk of dying from cancer compared to the general population. Firefighters are also much more likely to be diagnosed with unique forms of cancer, such as malignant mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

Cieslik hopes the legislation brings awareness to firefighters to take as many precautions as possible to keep the toxins off their skin.

“It used to be kind of a badge of courage for the senior firefighter who had the gnarliest helmet or the dirtiest turnout gear. They used to always say, ‘Oh, you know who the rookie is because he has all that clean gear,’” he said. “Now, as a chief, one of the things that I push with my guys is that when we are done with an incident, our turnout gear gets washed and cleaned and our helmet gets washed and cleaned. We also worry a lot about decontamination after a fire of the firefighters to make sure that that residue and products of combustion get off of our skin.”