Cancer threatens firefighters long after responding
Studies show firefighters have higher rates of cancer and other health problems, with higher risk of testicular cancer
By Paul Eakins
LONG BEACH, Calif. — Thirty years ago, when David Ellis became a firefighter, he rarely considered the risks of the job once he stepped away from a burning building or another emergency.
Like most firefighters, Ellis was often in and out of the fire station many times each day. He might reuse the same turnout — his protective pants and jacket — throughout his shift.
Back then, neither firefighters such as Ellis nor even the medical community understood the continued risk of contamination that these emergency workers faced, simply by failing to clean their turnouts, to shower after being exposed to soot, and to take a few elementary precautions.
When he discovered cancer-like symptoms in 2007, Ellis, who was Long Beach's fire chief at the time, still didn't think that he could be afflicted with what turned out to be testicular cancer.
That form of cancer, he knew, typically occurs in younger men.
Then he did some research and discovered an anomaly in the statistics — "Except for firefighters," Ellis told the Press-Telegram last week.
Numerous studies have shown that firefighters have higher rates of cancer and other health problems, and at least one study has found that the highest cancer risk of all is testicular cancer — the same disease that forced the 52-year-old Ellis into an early retirement in 2009.
"Statistically, it's showing over and over again that it's affecting firefighters throughout the country," Ellis said.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Cincinnati and released in 2006 found that firefighters are twice as likely as other men to get testicular cancer.
The reason for the high cancer rates is that soot isn't just dirty, it's dangerous, said Grace LeMasters, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnatti's College of Medicine and a co-author of the study.
Fire and smoke are only the immediate threat that firefighters face, she said.
"As soon as they get out of that fire, off comes their mask and they're getting exposed to soot," she said. "Some of them go to bed immediately after (a fire) because they're exhausted. Well, that's like going to bed with cancer-causing agents."
LeMasters has been pushing for fire departments to be hyper vigilant to prevent exposure to soot and other carcinogens.
Every speck of soot in a firefighters' hair or on their skin could leach chemicals into their bodies. Every smear on their clothes could continue releasing dangerous gases long after the fire is out, she said.
"Firefighters can decrease their exposures by immediately and always showering after a fire," LeMasters said.
Even using the same gear twice without properly cleaning it in between can give firefighters a second dose of exposure, she said.
In addition to testicular cancer, three other cancers were found to be high-risk in LeMasters's study — prostate cancer; non- Hodgkin lymphoma, which is a cancer of the blood; and multiple myeloma, which affects bone marrow.
Although researchers are starting to learn about the cancer risks and examine the statistics, there are still many unanswered questions, such as which specific chemicals cause which cancers and why some are more prevalent than others.
"Why testicular cancer? Well, we don't know why," LeMasters said.
Workers' comp common
Those unknowns can cost the cities and other agencies that employ firefighters, too.
Just as cancer and other ailments have become all too common among firefighters, workers' compensation claims for their illnesses are also common.
The city of Long Beach has settled a workers' compensation claim with Ellis, though the City Council still needs to sign off on it Dec. 7, City Attorney Bob Shannon said. Such claims typically aren't contested because of all of the recognized risks of the job, he noted
"For public safety officers, cancer is presumed to be a work- related condition," Shannon said.
Over about six years, Ellis will receive $86,261.90 for one health issue and $80,787 for another, though Shannon said he couldn't legally divulge the details of the health problems, and Ellis didn't want to discuss the specifics of the claim. He will also receive lifetime medical care.
New safety measures
Although longtime firefighters such as Ellis may not be able to benefit much from new research, fire officials are hopeful that new recruits can avoid the same difficulties.
Assistant Fire Chief Mike DuRee said that firefighters now are much more aware of the risks they face, and the Long Beach Fire Department has many safety procedures in place to reduce contamination, he said.
Every firefighter has two turnouts, and when one is exposed to soot or other risky elements, it is put into an extractor machine, like a high-speed industrial washing machine with special cleaning agents.
The Gear isare cleaned thoroughly, and it isn't allowed into the common areas of the fire stations where the firefighters eat and sleep.
But fire departments simply didn't know about the true extent of the ongoing dangers in Ellis's day, or even when DuRee started his career 17 years ago.
In years past, the rough-and-tumble firefighter, covered in soot, riding the back of a howling fire engine wasn't just an image from children's fantasies — it was the way many firefighters saw themselves, too, DuRee said.
"It was almost like a badge of honor," he said. "The firefighters thought, 'I'm dirty cause I'm working hard.'"
That image has done a 180-degree turnaround.
"The dirty, soiled turnouts used to be the badge of honorowner," said DuRee. "Now the clean turnouts are the badge of honor."
Ellis may get his own badge of honor as well, as a cancer survivor. His disease is in remission now.
He said his decision to retire last year was a difficult one, but the right one, so that he could give up fighting fires to focus instead on fighting his disease, as well as spending time with his family — his wife, Roni, his grown son Jeff, and his many nieces and nephews.
Despite his health issues, Ellis said he doesn't regret his career choice.
"Being a firefighter and the crew I had with Long Beach, I couldn't have asked for more," Ellis said. "It was a dream come true for me."
Ellis said he is still recovering and trying to figure out what his next step in life will be. Whatever it is, he said he doesn't plan to dwell on his cancer.
"That's not something that's going to define who I am," Ellis said. "It's a phase in my life and then I move on."
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