New bill aims to track cancer rates among firefighters

The legislation would provide the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with the funding to analyze data related to cancer within the profession

By Elizabeth Beilman
The Evening News and Tribune 

JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. — U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth met with local fire service members Wednesday to discuss a bill aimed at tackling increased cancer rates among firefighters.

The Firefighter Cancer Registry Act, co-sponsored by Indiana's 9th Congressional District representative, would provide the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with the funding and capability to collect and analyze data related to cancer incidents within the profession. It would create a national, voluntary registry for firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer.

A 2010 study by the CDC of almost 30,000 career firefighters across the country discovered they had a 9 percent higher rate of cancer diagnoses and 14 percent higher rate of cancer-related deaths compared to the general population.

"We need to make sure that we do everything we can to support them, increase awareness about this and do research into what we can do to prevent a spike in cancer for those who are fighting fires," Hollingsworth, R-Indiana, said Wednesday at Jeffersonville Fire Station No. 2.

The Congressman hosted a roundtable discussion to hear concerns about this issue and others with representatives of the Jeffersonville, New Albany and Clarksville fire departments as well as state and local firefighters' associations. Other topics included maintaining federal grants for agencies and addressing mental health and stress among firefighters.

"I hope this will be the beginning of a dialogue ... about how we can continue to support at every single level and every single way those that put themselves in harm's way for the benefit of the rest of us," Hollingsworth said.

CDC data on cancer rates among firefighters tells the story of what many have witnessed for years. To Thomas Hanify, president of the Professional Fire Fighters Union of Indiana, it's personal.

"I can tell you dozens of my coworkers that died early deaths right after retirement," Hanify said.

Firefighters are not only more likely to be diagnosed with certain kinds of cancer, but also their chances of getting lung cancer and dying from leukemia directly increase as exposure to fire increases over time, the study found.

Twice as many firefighters in the study as the general population were diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, a very rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

"We're not fighting fires in wood and paper any longer. It's all plastic ... as it burns, [it releases] carcinogens," said Joe Hurt, president of the Jeffersonville Firefighters' International Association of Fire Fighters Local 558. "Everything that comes off these fires is a carcinogen. It's getting in our skin, it's getting in our clothes, it's getting in our gear, coming back into our firehouses."

Decades ago, firefighters weren't taking necessary precautions against exposure to those carcinogens, Hanify said. Service members would wear their gear into their bunk rooms and store it there, which Hanify called a "death wish."

"Finally, we're recognizing this is an occupational hazard for firefighters and for years ... we're too foolish, too ignorant, too macho to say, 'Hey, let's take care of this, and let's do it right,'" Hanify said.

The Jeffersonville Fire Department has taken steps to reduce risks over the years, Chief Eric Hedrick said. Firefighters no longer store their gear in places of exposure like bunks and kitchens. The department is working to buy a second set of gear for service members so there is one available while the other is being sanitized.

"We're doing small things to try to eliminate the risk," Hedrick said. He believes the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act could "move the needle" to achieving bigger solutions.

The bill recently passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and now awaits approval from the full House of Representatives.

Copyright 2017 The Evening News and Tribune 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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