State rep: Firefighters must accept responsibility in cancer prevention

Rep. Christina Hagan said while decontamination laws can be made, firefighters must also take steps to do it on their own

By Rick Rouan
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The 80 new firefighters Columbus plans to hire next year could be among the first to really understand the risk of cancer they face on the job. For the 50 city firefighters who are expected to retire in 2018 and thousands of others, it could be too late.

For years, firefighters have shed their masks and other gear after flames were knocked down, not knowing they were breathing carcinogens and exposing their skin to chemicals that could lead to cancer. Today's firefighters are learning more about that risk.

About half of firefighters now believe that cancer is their biggest risk on the job. (Photo/Pixabay)
About half of firefighters now believe that cancer is their biggest risk on the job. (Photo/Pixabay)

"It's a generational effect. We're behind the eight ball from lack of education," said Mark Rine, a terminally ill Columbus firefighter, during a forum Wednesday about the occupational cancer risk firefighters face. "For a long time it's been lack of information. It's a lack of understanding. And what we don't know, we don't fear."

The forum, co-sponsored by The Dispatch and the Columbus Division of Fire, brought 80 firefighters, chiefs, lawmakers and others to the Columbus Fire Training Academy's John Nance Auditorium.

In an October investigative series, "Unmasked," The Dispatch detailed the threat of cancer for firefighters and the steps that need to be taken to reduce the risk. The series has led to calls for change as firefighters and chiefs battle a firehouse culture that looks down on safety precautions, a lack of national standards to prevent cancer and too few resources to combat the epidemic.

One precaution is to decontaminate after fighting a fire, Rine said. That includes bodies and equipment.

Lawmakers could require more decontamination efforts, but state Rep. Christina Hagan, an Alliance Republican whose husband is a firefighter, said firefighters also have to accept responsibility and take steps to do it on their own.

"We as legislators can listen and try to define these problems," said Hagan, a co-sponsor of Ohio's presumptive cancer law. "I think having better data collection onsite is not a bad thing."

About half of firefighters now believe that cancer is their biggest risk on the job. That was one of the findings of a statewide survey of 1,300 firefighters The Dispatch conducted.

The survey found that 1 in 6 firefighters has been diagnosed with cancer during their careers. Firefighters are at least 14 percent more likely to develop cancer than the general public.

Most fire chiefs who responded to the survey agreed that cancer is the greatest occupational hazard for firefighters, but only half provide training or established rules — such as required cleaning of gear following a fire — to prevent it.

Dispatch reporters Lucas Sullivan and Mike Wagner and videographer Doral Chenoweth III worked on the five-day series for eight months. The series in large part chronicled the efforts of Rine, a father of five who has become Ohio's biggest evangelist for cancer prevention.

Rine has traveled the state trying to educate firefighters about the risks posed when they don't take precautions to protect themselves against the carcinogen-laced chemicals they're exposed to while fighting fires.

But the firehouse culture traditionally has celebrated dirty gear as a trophy for a job well done, and smaller departments often lack funding to provide decontamination facilities.

"My husband always said no one respects anyone with clean turnout gear," said Nora Jaegly, of Toledo, who lost her husband, Peter, in 2013 to occupational cancer. "If your turnout gear was clean, you weren't working hard enough."

Cal Holloway, a Dayton firefighter with cancer, agreed, but he said in many cases firefighters are exposing themselves to chemicals to escape the heat inside their gear. Then they throw the gear in a truck where they ride along with it, absorbing carcinogens along the way.

"The minute we can get out of that uncomfortable situation, that's what we're trying to do," Rine said. "... At the end of your day, you have to rank your priorities. Is 20 minutes of comfort worth your life?"

Copyright 2017 The Columbus Dispatch

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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