Study highlights need to decontaminate gear after the fire is out

By Dr. Mallika Marshall
For CBS Boston

With every call, firefighters know they could be putting their lives on the line. “You know it’s a dangerous job,” explained Kevin McNiff, a 28-year veteran of the Boston Fire Department. “But you really don’t think about the silent killer, which is cancer,” he said. But now, McNiff is forced to think about it. At 53-years-old he is being treated for kidney cancer. “I have a battle ahead of me,” he said.

It’s a battle more firefighters are facing. A study done by NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health looked at more than 30,000 firefighters and found significantly higher rates of respiratory, digestive and urinary cancers than in the general population. “I’ve known dozens upon dozens of guys that have gotten cancer on this job,” McNiff said.

Dr. Susan Shaw is a researcher based in Maine. She conducted a small study and found high levels of flame retardant chemicals in the blood of firefighters after a fire event. “Firefighters have this very high exposure to chemicals,” she said. “It’s a combination of the chemicals that are in our furniture, in our plastics, in our homes,” she added.

Dr. Shaw is now launching a larger study, based here in New England. “We want to bring attention to ways to reduce exposure so we prevent cancer among firefighters,” she said.

According to Dr. Shaw, there are a few things firefighters can do to reduce their risk. “It’s all about decontamination,” she said. Dr. Shaw’s research has shown that cancer-causing chemicals and by-products can linger on equipment long after the fire is out. That means it’s critical for firefighters to wash the soot off their skin. Dr. Shaw recommends firefighters hose off their gear after every fire as well. However, firefighter McNiff says that’s really not practical because cleaning the gear can take a long time and backup gear isn’t always up to par.

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