Wilmington Fire Department finds innovative ways to protect firefighters from cancer

Firefighters take precautions to reduce cancer risk

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Firefighters face death head on each time they walk into a burning building, but researchers say they also face a higher than average risk of dying from cancer because of their line of work.

Studies over the past decade have found a strong link between the exposure firefighters experience on the job and their increased risk of cancer. People who fight fires for a living are 9 percent more likely to get cancer and 14 percent more likely to die from cancer than the public they serve.

Protective gear for firefighters has evolved over the years, but at the same time, the materials in people’s homes have changed. Now more furniture and household items are plastic and throw off more toxic fumes when they ignite.

“Cancer has become the leading cause of death—line of duty death—for firefighters,” WFD deputy chief Steve Mason said. “If you think about a house fire, all the smoke, the black and gray, and you know, filthy smoke that’s in those buildings, that stuff absorbs into our protective clothing and eventually it seeps into your skin through your pores.”

Local agencies like Wilmington Fire Department have made changes to how they handle their protective gear over the past few years to reduce firefighters exposure to carcinogens they encounter on the job. For years now, firefighters undergo annual physicals where doctors check their lungs and conduct blood screens to check for cancer.

WFD recently accomplished a long-term goal to add commercial grade machines in every station. The machines cost up to $15,000 and are specially made to decontaminate gear after its worn in a fire.

The department is also in the process of a $400,000 effort to provide two sets of turnout gear to nearly 200 firefighters in the next three years.

“Now, we’re only 10 or 11 percent of the fire department up to two sets of gear, so that’s a huge step forward for us and trying to get our folks to reduce their exposures to occupational cancer by limiting the amount of time that they have to wear that dirty gear,” said Mason.

While city workers crunch the numbers and seek out the funding to quickly outfit everyone, they’ve come up with some creative solutions to bridge the gap.

Dirty gear isn’t allowed in the cab of their new firetrucks, under their clean cab concept. The two new trucks they introduced to their fleet in 2020 have special compartments to keep tools, breathing apparatuses and clothing away from firefighters when they’re not in use. The trucks are also equipped with high impact filtration systems that prevent contaminants and potentially cancerous particles from circulating within the cab when firefighters return from a fire.

On Monday, they put a new contamination reduction unit into use at a fire on 6th Street, allowing firefighters to swap their smokey equipment on scene for a clean set.

They’re still fine tuning that process, but people like master firefighter Jason Leray say the extra effort is worth it to reduce the risk of getting cancer in the future.

“It’s definitely on my mind as a father and a husband and yeah, it’s definitely…definitely more there, so the fact that we’re starting to go down this route for the guys that are two and three years in here…I certainly hope that it’ll help them later on down the line,” said Leray.

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