As if entering a burning building weren’t dangerous enough, firefighters these days have another risk to contend with: cancer.
The International Association of Firefighters says cancer is now the leading cause of death in the industry.
“We’re seeing a lot of younger members in their 40s, early 40s, who’ve got 20 years on the job, who are developing these cancers at a very young age,” Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn told NBC News.
Fire departments in Boston, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Toronto and Calgary all report elevated cancer rates, which have been shown to only increase with length of service.
“The longer you’re a firefighter, the greater your chance of getting some kind of cancer,” Susan Shaw, executive director of the Marine and Environmental Research Institute and a professor at State University of New York in Albany, told The Atlantic. “These are people who have a gladiator mentality, and they’re really tough. [But] now you have a different kind of danger.”
While the risk of cancer among firefighters isn’t new, the type of cancer being diagnosed is. Three decades ago, mesothelioma was the most common cancer, caused by asbestos found in dust and debris from older structures. Buildings built before the mid-1970s typically contained the dangerous mineral in floor and ceiling tiles, siding, insulation and joint compound. The fibers could then become airborne when disturbed, such as with a firefighter’s ax during ventilation or forcible entry, and then inhaled or stuck to turnouts and helmets.
The link between asbestos and firefighter cancer was further strengthened during 9/11, when more than 2,500 first responders became ill with cancer — many of them with mesothelioma. An estimated 300 to 400 tons of asbestos fibers were used in the construction of the World Trade Center in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Today, the most common cancers among firefighters are leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. Contemporary structures contain more plastics, synthetic building materials and appliances than ever before, which are not only more flammable but release toxic gases deadlier than carbon monoxide, as well as carcinogenic soot. When the firefighters sweat, their pores can absorb this soot, allowing chemicals to enter the bloodstream.