In Somerville, Mass., 26 firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer in the past 20 years. Tom Ross, Somerville Fire Local 76 President, said that it was “common thought” that firefighters were exposed to cancer-causing chemicals while fighting fires if smoke is inhaled.
According to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), benzene and formaldehyde as well as asbestos (in older structures) are the main chemicals firefighters are exposed to when household items and products are burned. Benzene and formaldehyde are known cancer-causing chemicals, and exposure happens either by inhalation or absorption through the skin.
Benzene is widely used in a number of industries and products. Exposure to products containing benzene can cause life-threatening diseases including Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), lymphomas and aplastic Anemia.
Heart problems and physical injuries aren’t uncommon among firefighters, either. Somerville Firefighter Robert Quinn died of a heart attack at the age of 57, and Somerville Fire Lieutenant Paul Sullivan died two months later of pancreatic cancer. Two other Somerville firefighters are currently on leave battling cancer.
Fire Chief Patrick Sullivan was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1999 when he was just 39. He had been with the fire department for 13 years by that point.
“It can be scary not knowing what tomorrow’s going to hold for you,” Sullivan said. “But we are trying to protect ourselves better.”
But for Sullivan, being a firefighter is the only job for him. “I can’t imagine doing any other job in my life.”
Tom Ross believes that firefighting is more dangerous now than it was decades ago when furniture was made from wood and cotton, which burns clean during a fire. Today, household items are often made of plastics. Furniture and items such as couches, carpets, and drapes now have flame-retardant chemicals that are linked to cancer.
“There has to be a whole revamp of the culture of the fire department,” Ross said, pointing out extra precautions that firefighters take now to protect themselves, such as a hood under helmets. “People used to think they looked cool when they came back from a fire and were covered in soot and dirt and really looked like a tough guy and the salty old veteran. Now it’s not cool anymore because you are exposing yourself to cancer and nobody wants to do that.”