A firefighter shaving his head in support of colleagues fighting cancer.
07 Mar 2019

Smoke and soot from synthetics the greatest killer of firefighters


According to an NBC News article, The International Association of Firefighters claims that  cancer is now the leading cause of death among US firefighters.

While thirty years ago, firefighters were most often diagnosed with asbestos-related cancers, today the more common cancers are leukemialymphoma or myeloma, officials say.

Fire departments in Boston, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Toronto and Calgary all report elevated cancer rates.

The most aggressive cancers were oral, digestive, respiratory and urinary.

Researchers say one big reason for the change is that firefighters today are fighting very different fires than in the past. Modern homes and businesses are full of synthetics, plastics and chemicals that burn much faster and can coat firefighters in toxic soot and other substances.

A CDC/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study tracked nearly 30,000 firefighters across the United States in 2010 and found higher rates of cancer than the general population.

Congress is currently considering whether to approve the creation of a National Firefighter Cancer Registry — to get a firm handle on the number of deaths.

Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn called the rising rate of cancer among the city´s firefighters an “epidemic”, in a recent article on the NBC News network website.

“We're seeing a lot of younger members in their 40s, early 40s, who've got 20 years on the job, who are developing these cancers at a very young age,” Finn told NBC News.

Each month, another three active or just-retired firefighters are diagnosed with cancer. The cancer rate among firefighters is more than twice the rate for Boston residents — and it’s illegal for firefighters in this city to smoke, the NBC article claims.


Glenn Preston

Boston Firefighter Glenn Preston is being treated for blood cancer at the Dana Farber Cancer Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Photo: Picasa

In 2002, Preston was among 200 firefighters who responded to a large fire at a power plant on the city’s south side. Inside the building, he became separated from his crew as chemicals came down from the roof and coated his turnout gear .


“That’s the most scared I've ever been in my life, I think”, he told NBC News

When he finally made it out, his jacket was covered in a slick slime, possibly containing PCBs.

Of the 200 firefighters who responded, around 50 have since been diagnosed with cancer or cardiac ailments, according to the commissioner.

He’s already had chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. He invited NBC News to his hospital room to talk, but the crew had to wear surgical masks and gloves, swabbing the camera gear down with alcohol to lessen the risk of introducing a virus that could prove fatal to Glenn.

“It's in the lining of my heart. The tumor's in the lining of my heart now,” he said.

Preston is 41 years old and born in Boston.

“For me, firefighting is a passion,” he explained. “Other than God, family, and my country. There's nothing I love more than being a Boston firefighter.”

Read the original article on NBC News here

Cover Photo: (Above)  Emanuel Villegas, a Vandenberg Fire Department rescue truck captain, shaves the head of John Markley, in honor of Ryan Raffel here Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011. Ryan, the 5-year-old nephew of Vandenberg Fire Department firefighter, Robert Raffel, was diagnosed earlier this year with Leukemia. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Tech. Sgt. Scottie McCord)