By Robert Fling
The topic of cancer and how it relates to the fire service is one that has been front page news for quite some time. It is no secret that we as firefighters are at a much higher risk to contract a host of cancers. Much time has been spent communicating the importance of washing and decontaminating our gear after we leave a fire. However, I pose the question: “Is laundering our gear enough to reduce our risk?”
This is a topic I have been researching for close to a year. Unfortunately, the answer is no. Washing our gear to decontaminate it is just one piece of a puzzle. So what can we do in addition to help ensure our health?
Self-contained breathing apparatus is an extremely important piece of our personal protective equipment, but it only protects us if we WEAR IT! There are more than 800 chemicals that can be found in the smoke that emanates from today’s fires, and the majority of those chemicals are known carcinogens. The fact that firefighters willingly take their face pieces off and inhale this garbage is, quite frankly, unacceptable. The vast majority of firefighters have felt a banging headache after leaving the scene of a fire. When that happens to you, you have already been POISONED. Fire service leaders, both formal and informal, must recognize this and take it upon themselves to advocate change.
Wearing modern protective turnout gear offers proven thermal protection. However, the physical stress of working on the fireground causes body temperatures to rise significantly. Unfortunately, skin is amazingly absorbent. For every five degrees (F) that body temperature rises, the absorption rate of skin increases by a staggering 400 percent! This increase essentially turns us into a human sponge, and the toxins that are absorbed through our gear have a direct path into our bodies. We need to realize that the increased rate of cancer that we experience in the internal “filtering” systems of our bodies is not just a coincidence. Washing gear can remove toxins and can prevent post-fire exposure, however the damage is already done by absorption through the body.
Exercise should be an integral part of every firefighter’s life. Health-related incidents (primarily heart attack) are still the leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths (according to the U.S. Fire Administration). Exercise will improve cardiovascular health, aid in weight loss (70 percent of the fire service has a weight problem), and helps our bodies excrete smoke’s carcinogens. This is achieved through vigorous exercise, which causes the body to sweat profusely, effectively detoxifying it of some of the carcinogenic chemicals which were previously absorbed on the fireground. There have been some writings that outline the use of infrared saunas (without exercise) as a way to detoxify, however incorporating exercise into the detoxification process produces numerous other health benefits (i.e. lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, decrease stress, better fireground performance, etc.). In addition, we must realize that the toxic chemicals in smoke have a cumulative effect on our bodies. Therefore, the increased frequency and duration of smoke exposures directly increase the risk of contracting cancer.
Properly wearing face masks and frequent exercise should be performed in conjunction with regular turnout gear cleaning to reduce the risk of contracting cancer. The number of firefighters who succumb to cancer each year is staggering, and it is only set to increase if we do not change our ways. “This is how we have always done things” has become an antiquated excuse. To serve others, we must first protect ourselves. Take the lead and enact change–not only for yourself, but your family.
Robert Fling has more than 19 years of experience in the fire service and currently serves as Chief of Department and Chief of Training for the Dix Hills (NY) Fire Department, which is located on Long Island. He is a contributor for FirefighterToolbox.com as well as the founder and president of Facepiece On, an organization dedicated to teaching the fire service about the dangers of breathing smoke on today’s fireground. In addition, he is a technical specialist with Project Kill The Flashover and sits on the advisory board for The First Twenty, an organization dedicated to improving the health and fitness of firefighters. He holds several fire service certificates, is a New York State certified Emergency Medical Technician and is an active member of the NFPA, Suffolk County Fire Chiefs Council, Town of Huntington Fire Chiefs Council, International Association of Fire Chiefs and FASNY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit robertdfling.com for additional information.