Steve Shapira, a retired St. Paul firefighter who has fought more than 1,000 fires in 17 years, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma three years ago. Following his diagnosis, Steve received four separate calls in a single day from other firefighters who were diagnosed with various forms of cancer. He’s been unable to claim workers’ compensation from the City of St. Paul even though two different doctors confirmed his cancer was job-related and his pension plan recognizes his cancer as duty-related.
In Albert Lea, in a department with 16 full-time firefighters, three developed cancer within one year.
Firefighters experience higher rates of certain types of diagnoses and cancer-related deaths compared to the general U.S. population, according to a multi-year study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the National Fire Protection Association, more than 68 percent of all firefighters will develop some form of cancer in their lifetimes. The rate of line-of-duty deaths from cancer-related illness is rapidly increasing and is on pace to overtake cardiac disease as the leading killer of firefighters nationwide.
The most frequently diagnosed cancers in firefighters are found in the digestive, respiratory and urinary systems, as well as orally, including the salivary glands and throat. Specific cancers related to carcinogen exposure – such as malignant mesothelioma – are more than twice as prevalent in firefighters than in the general population. The chance of lung cancer and leukemia diagnoses, and cancer-related death increases with the amount of time spent at fires.
Despite many statewide bans on fire retardant chemicals, the presence of existing synthetic materials increases the amount of smoke and toxic gas released during occupied structure fires. Dirty or ill-fitting turnout gear can increase the risk of exposure to carcinogens, and prolonged exposure to the skin and lungs is especially dangerous. In order to limit occupational cancer risk, the fire service must improve efforts around proper training, use, cleaning and maintenance of protective gear during all phases of firefighting.
Minnesota is one of 33 states to recognize these cancers as an occupational hazard of being a firefighter. According to OSHA, in the last decade, only one firefighter in all of Minnesota has had his or her cancer accepted as an occupational injury. Experts and researchers continue to work on finding a definitive link between fire exposure and cancer.