Fire departments look at ways to reduce an elevated risk of cancer

They are the ones who run into burning buildings to save lives, but the job has come at a cost for many career firefighters, in the form of an increased risk of cancer.

That has many fire departments looking into ways to make the job safer.

Rockville Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim Vagonis knows the risks all too well. Five years ago he was diagnosed with throat cancer, which was linked to the job. After a year of treatments, which included radiation that left scars on his neck, his cancer is now in remission.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Vagonis said.

Between 2002 and 2019, 66% of career firefighter line-of-duty deaths were due to cancer, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters. By comparison, heart disease was responsible for 18% of deaths.

Firefighters are also one-to-two-times more likely to develop cancers such as mesothelioma, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain and testicular cancer, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health.

The cause: Breathing in the fumes and coming into contact with soot inside buildings, Vagonis said.

“Those carcinogens that are coming out of the carpets, in the tables, the chairs, in the plastic … are what’s causing cancer,” he said.

Vagonis — who has been a firefighter for more than 30 years — recalled the emphasis on protecting firefighters from heart issues decades ago. To ease the strain on the heart, after a fire is out, masks would come off, even though fire crews remained surrounded by the cancer-causing carcinogens.

And for many years, he said, they would walk around covered in the black soot that covered them after a firefight.

“It was a badge of honor to walk around with dirty gear or crap on your face,” he said.

He also recalls bringing his dirty gear not only into the firetruck’s cab and into the firehouse but also into his home.

“I remember having it next to my bed in my bedroom — not anymore,” he said.

So how are fire departments trying to turn the tide on these growing cancer risks?

At his Rockville department and at Montgomery County Fire and Rescue, Vagonis said, the first focus after a fire is decontamination. This includes scrubbing and hosing off firefighters’ gear and wiping off exposed skin before they leave the scene.

“We wipe our neck, we wipe our faces, we get all that mess off of us,” Vagonis said.

Other steps include loading dirty fire gear into plastic bags and getting it professionally cleaned. Also, dirty gear is not allowed inside firehouses, inside personal cars and especially not in homes. Firefighters must take showers and wash their clothes when they get back to the station after fighting a fire.

Now, Vagonis said, there is a more-balanced approach to addressing both heart and cancer risks that come with the job.

“What we’re balancing is that cardiovascular component — not trying to overwork the heart but also creating protections for cancer in us breathing those types of things in,” Vagonis said.

The hope is these steps will lead to a big decline in cancer numbers among the first responders.

“Hopefully in the next five years we’ll see a reduction in those numbers,” he said.

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Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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