Firefighters combat high risk of cancer

GIBSON COUNTY, Tenn. — According to a new study, firefighters are nine percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and 14 percent more likely to die from cancer.

Gibson County Fire Chief Bryan Cathey says it is because the contents of fires are changing.

“Fires nowadays aren’t like they were in the ’70s, ’80s, ’60s,” Cathey said. “Most things are made out of plastics, which are made of petroleum products.”

He says he has seen first-hand the effects of cancer on firefighters. “We have actually had three firefighters die of cancer since 1990,” he said.

The risk of them being exposed to the chemicals is not during the fire, but after the flames are out.

“At the time, you’re protected. It’s when you go taking your clothing off is when you start getting it on your skin and your neck,” said Capt. Joe Alexander with the Trenton Fire Department.

“We pull it down around our throat because we’re probably going to go back in,” Chief Cathy described while pointing to personal protective equipment on a firefighter. He says the chemicals are still able to come off the fabric. “So now, he has it down around his throat, which was exposed. Now he’s hot, sweaty, and when he moves, his hood moves. You’re grinding it in.”

The Trenton Fire Department has a hose tower where they clean most of their gear. But a lot of fire stations, including the volunteer fire stations in the county, do not have one. “We’re going to have to come up with showers for our stations,” Cathy said.

Capt. Alexander says he takes extra precautions around his daughter. “I try to change every time before I go home or take a shower before I touch her. You have to take it into consideration every time,” he said.

The study, done by the International Fire Chiefs Association and National Volunteer Fire Council, says to wipe down all gear and store clothing in plastic bags until it can be properly washed.

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