Steve Westcott was an Erie County, Ohio, firefighter when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He is convinced his cancer was caused by his job.
A study released by the International Association of Firefighters backs his claim, showing that firefighters have a 14 percent higher chance of dying from cancer, as opposed to the general population.
Firefighters have many opportunities on the job to inhale carcinogens such as benzene. The chemical is prevalent in diesel exhaust from fire trucks and when products made from benzene burn. The chemical is released into the air, potentially filling the lungs of our heroes that are just trying to keep us safe.
Exposure to products containing benzene can cause life-threatening diseases including Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), lymphomas and aplastic Anemia.
Benzene exposure happens most commonly through inhalation, but the chemical can also be absorbed through the skin, opening a pathway for benzene to reach the bloodstream and leach into the bone marrow.
Ohio state lawmakers are now considering a senate bill that will help cover costs for firefighters like Steve Westcott that have been diagnosed with cancer.
In addition to benzene exposure, the study identified other challenges that come with the job of being a firefighter. Prominent among these is the emotional distress suffered from routinely witnessing traumatic situations.
After repeatedly dealing with tragedies such as car accidents and fires, firefighters take hard emotional hits. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a major risk factor, one that firefighters don’t often talk about. The study estimates that 20 percent of firefighters and paramedics suffer from PTSD as opposed to only 3 percent of the general population.
“For the longest time we never wanted to address it because 98 percent of firefighters said there was a stigma of seeking behavioral health and counseling,” Wescott said. “We’re starting to change our ways. We now realize we need to talk about it. We need to go get help. We need to let this off our chest, so this doesn’t build up.”