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Rates of cancer diagnosis among firefighters becomes another threat

Volunteer firefighters
Posted at 8:42 PM, Aug 23, 2022

Deborah Gaudet spent 26 years living out her passion as a Virginia Beach, Va firefighter, before retiring in 2021.

“We became a huge family,” she said.

But in 2011, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It was terrifying. Naturally, not something I was expecting at all,” Gaudet said. “It was like, ‘Oh no, not me.’ And, turned out it was me.”

She found out from her doctor her diagnosis stemmed from her time on the front lines. She said that the update gave her relief.

Eventually, she decided to share her story and was determined to help others in uniform.

“I want these guys to know what this is like, and I don't want them to have to go through it too,” Gaudet said.

According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN), a nonprofit providing help and mentoring to firefighters and their families, cancer is the most dangerous threat to firefighters' health and safety today.

FCSN officials also stated that firefighters have a nine percent higher risk of being diagnosed and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer when compared with the general U.S. population.

READ: International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Fire Fighter Cancer Awareness and Prevention

Also, the group cites research from the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOHS), which shows firefighters are at one and a half times greater risk of getting multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and at least two times greater risk of getting mesothelioma and testicular cancer.

“We really have no idea what is burning inside that building,” said Kevin Ferrara, a volunteer firefighter and retired Air Force firefighter who served at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton Roads.

“It's the byproducts of combustion,” VBFD Deputy Chief of Fire Administration Ken Pravetz said. “It's the dirty soot [and] the dirty gear.”

“That was their badge of courage,” Ferrara added. “If you had dirty gear, if you had a melted fire shield, that showed you were courageous. That mentality, fortunately, we're getting that out of the fire service today.”

Ferrara also points to items that could be in structures when crews respond to calls.

“You look through your house, you have various fabrics, your stain-resistant carpeting, your furniture, even some of your clothing, contains these carcinogens,” he said. As they are consumed by a fire, they produce soot. They produce ash. Those products of combustion are absorbed onto the turnout gear, through the firefighters' skin.”

Virginia law also lists 10 different cancers presumed to be occupational diseases linked to firefighters.

“They know that we're exposed to carcinogens enough that, chances are pretty good that we may suffer from one of what they call the presumptive cancers,” Gaudet said.

“Our retirees are the group I really worry about right now,” Pravetz said. “Our recent retirees who fought fires 20 years ago, they didn't have the same turnout gear. They wore the dirty gear.”

VBFD officials said that their department has been making investments to protect members, including providing firefighters a second set of gear and wipes to clean their skin after a fire.

It's also not just about the gear they wear. Virginia Beach firefighters said they’re also putting in a strategy called "Clean Cab Technology." This will include replacing seats like this in all of their trucks with ones that are easily removable and can be cleaned after responding to a call.”

“I think one of the biggest things we've had is a culture change here in the department that I've seen,” Norman Williams, VBFD Battalion Chief of Health and Safety said. “Being clean, changing your gear, cleaning yourself while you're still at the fire.”

“I'm glad to hear that Virginia Beach is doing the right thing,” Ferrara added.

As for Gaudet, she has been cancer free since 2014.

She hopes to see her department continue to carry out strategies to protect those who protect us.

“Everything we're trying to do to save a life, we're trying to do it,” Pravetz said.

Ferrara also recommends if you're a firefighter, whether active or retired, always be proactive about your health. This includes maintaining relationships with your doctors, especially a dermatologist.

If you’re an active firefighter, Ferrara also recommends always making sure to shower and wash your personal items after every fire.

This story was originally published by WTKR in Virginia Beach, Virginia.