How firefighters can cut their cancer risk

There’s a lot we don’t fully understand about firefighter cancer, but we know this for sure: Firefighter cancer diagnoses and deaths have been rising in Saskatchewan.

So how can volunteer and career firefighters reduce their cancer risk? To find out, WorkSafe Saskatchewan partnered with Jim Burneka Jr., founder of Firefighter Cancer Consultants, who toured and inspected 15 fire stations in the province last winter and interviewed their staff.

Burneka Jr. identified several ways the fire stations (representing eight departments) can step up their cancer prevention efforts. Some of these measures, the “low-hanging fruit,” have minimal or no cost and are relatively easy for firefighters to do. They include:

  • Decontaminating gear at the fire scene. Firefighters can use the fire hose to spray down their colleagues. “Water alone takes off 42 per cent of contaminants from the outer layer of fire gear,” says Burneka Jr. The use of dish soap and a brush doubles the effectiveness of this.
  • Removing and washing soiled uniforms. Ideally, firefighters should remove their uniforms at the fire scene, place them in clear bags (for easy identification) and wash them once they’re back at the station. At the very least, if they return to the station in uniform, they should cover the cab seats with a plastic tarp to curtail contamination.
  • Showering as soon as possible after a fire.
  • Documenting exposure. Firefighters should keep a record of the fires they fought, what they wore and the tasks they performed — helpful information should they ever receive a cancer diagnosis.

Burneka Jr. also identified the “high-hanging fruit,” or the measures that may take longer to implement. They include:

  • Using self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) throughout overhaul. This is extremely important because of carcinogens in smoke, soot and tar. SCBA is heavy, so first responders should take breaks during overhaul and drink plenty of water.
  • Washing personal protective equipment (PPE) in gear extractors. These machines are gentler on PPE than consumer washing machines. “The G-force in residential clothes washers can actually damage gear,” making it less protective, says Burneka Jr.
  • Storing firefighting gear in a dedicated room. At the station, gear shouldn’t be stored outside in the apparatus bay, where it can be exposed to diesel exhaust. Instead, it should be hung in a dry, well-ventilated room away from ultraviolet light (UV rays can degrade the material in PPE).
  • Purchasing backup sets of PPE in case firefighters are dispatched to another fire before their gear has been washed.
  • Purchasing particulate blocking hoods, which protect the neck from absorbing toxins.
  • Investing in diesel exhaust systems. Burneka Jr. favours closed-source hose systems, which suck diesel exhaust from firetrucks and release it into the atmosphere. Fire halls with a pole hole should ensure the hole has a complete seal so exhaust doesn’t enter the living quarters.

Burneka Jr. also recommends firefighters have annual skin exams and fire departments have their own physicians who are attuned to the special cancer prevention needs of firefighters.