Va. firefighters question cancer rate among ranks
More than 40 local firefighters have died of cancer in recent decades
By Amy Jeter
PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Troy Tippin recorded his memories of fire-fighting in a thin, red volume that had been published to commemorate the city's department.
Under a 1964 picture of two firemen half-carrying a third through a scattering of rocks and planks, he wrote, "Steve was burned on the roof by hot roofing tar."
Next to a 1987 photo of two engines surrounded by a tangle of hoses, Tippin scribbled the names of the streets — Detroit and Mount Vernon — and noted with a tinge of disappointment: "I just went off duty."
"A good friend as well as boss," he scrawled at the top of a page dedicated to retired Chief Odell Benton. Benton's name appeared again on the last page. There, Tippin wrote the names of every firefighter he knew who had been diagnosed with cancer.
"He just documented everything about the fire department," Tippin's wife, Joyce, said. "That was his whole life." Tippin's love of firefighting bordered on obsession.
He collected plates, pictures, newspaper articles, books. Toy fire engines decorated most flat surfaces in his Boyd Street home and, for a long time, an old red fire alarm served as the Tippins' mailbox. The family dog was a Dalmatian named Sparky.
He worked at all of the city's stations but one, building a reputation as an enthusiastic firefighter, one who would never leave anyone in a burning building. He kept a police scanner by his front door.
In 1992, high blood pressure forced Tippin into retirement after 33 years. He polished his golf game and spent more time bowling but continued showing up at the station houses.
And he kept adding to his list. By August 2001, the column of names reached the bottom of the page.
"Hey, there's a problem here," Tippin would tell other members of the Portsmouth Retired Police and Fire Fighters Association at their monthly meetings.
People listened. The problem was, no one knew what to do.
In summer 2003, Tippin started feeling run-down. Joyce told him maybe he needed to stop doing so much. "You're not as young as you used to be," she said.
Things got worse. Tippin didn't want to eat. His skin turned yellow. Doctors thought maybe something was wrong with his gallbladder. They ran a test and results came back.
Tippin asked the doctor if it had anything to do with being a firefighter. The answer: "We really don't know." He underwent surgery, then radiation and chemotherapy. He lost more than 40 pounds and grew weak. The cancer spread to his liver.
Troy Tippin died on March 21, 2004, at the age of 72.
Joyce wrote his name in his book.
He was No. 29.
Newell Whitehead was No. 6.
As a boy, he'd never aspired to be a firefighter, even though two of his uncles were. He'd seen them at fires with ice hanging off their faces or where it was hot as a furnace. He didn't want to work in such extreme conditions.
But at 21, Whitehead needed a paycheck, so he took a job with the department in 1965. He thought it would be temporary. "For the first time, I really felt like I was doing something worthwhile," Whitehead said. "You don't have to have somebody patting you on the back to tell you you did a good job. You know when you did."
The pay wasn't great, so Whitehead decided to seek promotions.
He was a captain in 1994, when he was first diagnosed with prostate cancer.
"You've got to be kidding me," Whitehead told his doctor. "I'm 51 years old."
He had always known he'd chosen a risky profession. You easily could get killed in a fire or on the way to one. And even in the 1960s, people knew firefighters were more susceptible to heart and lung diseases.
Whitehead started hearing about a possible cancer connection in the 1980s. By the time of his diagnosis, Virginia legislators had acknowledged the association, passing a law that allowed firefighters with some forms of cancer to receive workers' compensation benefits. Whitehead's union asked him to be the first to file a claim.
He dug through old logbooks and memories, and began to think about toxins.
"We were called 'smoke-eaters' for a reason," he thought. When Whitehead joined, firefighters used masks to filter the air. But they clogged easily if a room got steamy, so the men often took them off.
Next, firefighters got a type of mask that included a tank of oxygen in the early years and later a tank of compressed air. But those devices released air only when the men inhaled, which meant they also could breathe in smoke through the mask's imperfect seal.
In the 1960s, firefighters wore long jackets and tall boots that left a gap, where they were protected only by their blue jeans.
The only way to clean off the soot was to hose the gear down and hope it dried by the time you answered another call. The list went on and on. At the firehouse, diesel exhaust from the engines blew over their gear and even onto their food. Fires at the old wood treatment yard by the Jordan Bridge could have exposed them to carcinogens. So could sloshing through toxic goo when they answered calls to put out fires from blown transformers.
Whitehead was pretty sure his cancer came from his job — there was no history in his family. He just didn't know the exact cause.
"I can't say on this date, on this call, I was around this material," he said. "I think it's an accumulation." The Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission denied Whitehead's claim, saying he hadn't proven that exposure to carcinogens caused his cancer. Since then, state law has been changed to presume that certain forms of the disease are related to firefighting and to require employers to prove otherwise.
Research backs up some of Whitehead's suspicions.
The most definitive report — a review of 32 studies — came from University of Cincinnati researchers in 2006.
They concluded that there was probably an association between firefighting and four types of cancers: prostate, testicular, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma, which is a cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow. The research showed a possible connection to eight other cancers, including diseases affecting the brain, rectum, stomach and colon. Other researchers have determined that burning buildings release gases containing chemicals known to cause cancer.
Firefighters may breathe in the toxins while they're extinguishing smoldering embers because they sometimes remove their masks at that point. The carcinogens also may be absorbed through their skin.
Different cities could present different risks, depending on firefighting equipment and what the burning buildings and furniture were made of.
"They're exposed to so many darn carcinogens," said Dr. Thomas Hales, senior medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "How do you protect from that?" Hales and others are in the midst of research they hope will bring more answers. They're examining cancer incidence in more than 30,000 firefighters over six decades in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco. The study – sponsored by the U.S. Fire Administration, the National Cancer Institute and the CDC – is scheduled to be completed in 2014.
Meanwhile, Tippin's list grows.
Whitehead remembers discussing it with his former colleague.
"It's getting to be quite a few of us, getting the cancer," Tippin would say.
"Troy, that's part of the job, I guess, nowadays."
Whitehead believes conditions for Portsmouth firefighters have greatly improved over the past three decades. Fire department leaders have brought in better masks and protective clothing, hooked up washing machines and dryers for gear, and installed diesel-exhaust ventilation systems at the stations.
Additionally, firefighters are required to wear masks until gas meters show that carbon dioxide, oxygen and combustible gases and vapors have fallen to levels considered safe, said Capt. Rusty Quillin, president of Local 539 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Today's firefighters are constantly reminded about safety measures, he said. They do what they can to protect themselves but don't dwell on the risk.
"Those guys back then, they dealt with a whole different animal, as far as standards for safety equipment," said Quillin, a firefighter for more than 16 years. "We have it a ton better nowadays."
Whitehead, who retired in 2009, has fought the disease three times.
It came back in 2004, nine years after the operation. He beat that with two months of radiation treatments. The next year, after he'd been named chief, blood appeared in Whitehead's urine. His doctor discovered bladder cancer and removed the polyp.
At 68, Whitehead is cancer-free — for now.
"I figure sooner or later it's going to get me."
Less than a year after Whitehead's most recent diagnosis, retired police officer Rick Gaddis got a frightened phone call from the president of the Portsmouth Retired Police and Fire Fighters Association.
The former firefighter told Gaddis that his excrement was white.
The man went straight to the doctor, and within days, learned his diagnosis: pancreatic cancer. In a short time, Gaddis watched him transform from robust and jolly to weak and brittle. The friend died in June 2007, at 66.
He was No. 32.
Another name on Troy's list. That was when Gaddis decided to take a look at the book.
Both he and his wife, Beverley, had led the retiree association several times over nearly two decades. They'd met on the force in the 1970s – he was her training officer.
Gaddis had risen to the rank of lieutenant, in charge of vice and narcotics. Beverley retired as a detective in internal affairs.
They tended to get wrapped up in causes, to speak out and to try to make things happen.
The cancer thing bothered them. They'd been to too many funerals.
They copied Tippin's list, adding more names as they asked around.
At least three firefighters died of cancer for every one police officer who died of any cause, according to their calculations. About every fire chief in the past four decades had suffered from cancer, and the disease was showing up in firefighters' lungs, livers, stomachs, throats, prostates and testicles. Some had two, three kinds.
Gaddis wanted someone official to study the situation. He called Old Dominion University, the Environmental Protection Agency, a workers' rights group and the American Cancer Society. He and Beverley met with Portsmouth city officials and corresponded with U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. They decided they at least wanted to inform all retired Portsmouth firefighters and their families of the seemingly high number of cancer diagnoses and deaths. They wanted to encourage regular cancer screenings.
In February 2009, Gaddis received a letter with disappointing news. Portsmouth officials said federal law wouldn't allow the city to share names and addresses of current or former employees.
Beverley, then the association's president, asked the members what they wanted to do next. They couldn't think of anything else. It seemed too big.
She handed off the information to the firefighters' union.
Nearly two years passed.
One morning, when Beverley was doing her regular walk around Chesapeake Square Mall, something told her to go directly to a friend's house. She knew Patsy Lamb from church; they were in the same Sunday school class.
Patsy's husband, Billy, a former firefighter, had been suffering from cancer "from his head down to his toe" for four years.
"I believe this is the day that Billy's going to pass away," Patsy told Beverley after she arrived, and Beverley noticed that his breathing was labored.
The two women sat with him. Beverley started singing religious songs – it was all she knew to do – and she was with Billy Lamb when he died on Nov. 24, 2010, at the age of 73.
After that, Beverley wanted the association to take up the issue again. The members asked her to put something in the newsletter. She wrote:
"I'm concerned because so many of our retired fire fighters have been diagnosed with cancer and so many have died. I'm asking all of you to get regular medical check-ups and please follow-up, if your doctor says you need to! Maybe this will save your life!"
By then, without Troy around, Joyce Tippin was hearing less about retired firefighters. But she knew Patsy Lamb and she heard about Billy.
She added his name to the list.
Republished with permission of The Virginian-Pilot