TREASURE VALLEY -- They risk their lives to save ours, and the most dangerous part of their job isn't actually fighting the flames - it's the smoke and soot.
"This is an issue that has kind of come on the horizon in the last few years. And it's actually become an epidemic within the fire service," Firefighter Cancer Support Network Idaho state director and Middleton firefighter, Matt Pidjeon, said.
Studies show it's an epidemic that puts firefighters at a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population.
The latest research shows cancer is the biggest cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths in the United States. According to the International Association of Firefighters, "60 percent of the names on the Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial Wall in Colorado Springs are IAFF members who have died from occupational cancer".
There's an alarming rise in cases of cancer diagnoses in firefighters as they face the threat every day on any given call. KTVB looked into why and what's being done to prevent it here at home.
Firefighters are putting their lives on the line when they run toward a burning building, car or forest. But the modern dangers that are taking their lives and making them sick are the things we own. The effects on firefighters could not be seen for years down the road.
"Firefighters are being exposed everywhere," Pidjeon said. "We know that's part of the risks. When we first got into the job, it wasn't: didn't you know that we're gonna have cancer?"
"You may not see effects for 10 or 20 years and that's what makes it so difficult," Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan told KTVB, "We have had quite a few cancers within our department."
Now, various studies and research are showing the association between firefighters and a greater cancer risk.
"Statistics now say that one in three firefighters will be diagnosed with cancer," Pidjeon said.
Researchers say chemicals in smoke and soot are driving up cancer rates as so many of our personal possessions and belongings today are made of synthetic material, which is noxious fuel.
"It's what we call the toxic soup," Pidjeon added. "We say they're not the same fires they used to be, and it's because of the products that are within the fires."
"Firefighters are exposed to so many toxins in a structure fire: from the smoke to the gases to the plastics burning, to lead and asbestos, and it's getting in our skin. It's absorbed through the skin and through breathing," Chief Doan said.
Houses are also made of lighter material nowadays, causing them to go up quicker. Meaning, firefighters are exposed to more every time they respond to a structure fire, Meridian Fire Chief Mark Niemeyer said.
Recent studies show firefighters have higher rates of digestive, oral, respiratory, genital, and urinary cancer diagnoses.
"What we can do is take every protective measure we can to reduce or eliminate that from ourselves. And a lot of that is low-cost," Chief Niemeyer told KTVB.
Idaho's Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) pushes for measures (listed in graphic below) to prevent exposure to carcinogens, and to prevent a cancer diagnosis.
"We have what we call our 11 action steps which are little to no no cost to the department or the firefighter," Pidjeon added.
Departments across the Treasure Valley are taking many of those steps, such as using their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).
"All the way from startup all the way through overhaul. You need to have that air on," Pidjeon said.
The departments we spoke with - Meridian, Boise and Middleton - say they clean their personal protective equipment (PPE) on scene and when they return from the fire.
"That's basically scrubbing down head to toe, treating it as a hazmat because it truly is a hazmat. It's a complex hazmat," Pidjeon added.
Among the 11 action items, FCSA recommends using wipes to remove as much soot as possible from firefighters' heads, necks, jaws, throats, underarms and hands immediately while still on scene. Although they wear hoods and protective gear, those areas on their skin are places where soot has settled and smoke has snuck in.
"There's some places on the skin that we still see absorption of carcinogens," Chief Niemeyer said.
The departments we spoke with also change their clothes and wash them immediately after a fire and shower thoroughly after a fire. Pidjeon says the goal is to shower within the hour.
"We've given firefighters two sets of turn-outs. So after they go on a structure fire they remove their turn-outs right away, we bag them and we wash them. And we also give them new hoods, make sure they take a shower right away, we give them wipes to clean their face and their hands," Chief Doan said.
"It was kind of a Badge of Honor to have dirty equipment. And we've learned that that's how firefighters are getting cancer," Doan added.
Firefighters also now know that the little things add up to big things.
"You're exposing yourself over and over again," Pidjeon added.
"Our firefighters have enough to worry about on calls with the life-threatening stuff they face. We don't want them worrying about developing cancer," Chief Niemeyer added.
NBC News reports that Congress is currently considering creating a national cancer registry to keep track of rising cancer rates among firefighters.
Here at home, the Legislature passed a bill that changed worker's compensation law to presume that certain cancers within certain time periods are related to fighting fires. But fire departments KTVB spoke with tell us they've still have work to do in fighting this epidemic.
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