A new study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reveals that firefighters are more likely than the general population to be diagnosed or die from cancer, including mesothelioma, a rare cancer resulting from asbestos exposure.
One of those suffering firefighters is Lt. Terry Ritter who has served for 22 years. About five years ago, he felt a lump in his chest, which was diagnosed as cancer. He was told he might survive only a year or so.
“When I was initially diagnosed, I was told to prepare my family for my death,” said Ritter. Then he was treated at the University of Wisconsin’s Carbone Cancer Center in an experimental study.
“Rather than looking back at the diagnosis and trying to figure out what went wrong, I took the challenge that was put before me by Dr. Albertini and Dr. Weber to continue to pursue a healthy lifestyle and to continue in my profession and dedicate myself,” Ritter said.
According to Ritter, he knew his job had risks, whether that was smoke, flames, or what might be in the air.
“We’re continually running into new vulnerabilities, new threats,” said Ritter. “Our job is to recognize that there are inherent risks, to be prepared for anything and to problem solve.”
A retired Maryland firefighter/paramedic Cindy Ell survived cancer as well. “The words ‘toxic soup’ are being used to frequently encapsulate, if you will, or capture the idea of what our fires have become,” said Ell. “We’re now having to treat every fire as a hazardous materials incident.”
According to Madison Fire Department Division Chief Art Price, “Fires just don’t burn the same as they did 20 or 30 years ago. The housing industry, the clothing industry, the furniture industry have all changed gears and the type of products they use to produce their end products are all synthetics and plastics.”
“Every time we go into a fire now, we are going to be be exposed to more toxic chemicals because the materials that are burning aren’t natural fabrics or even natural wood,” said Price.
In response, the MFD is revising its training and procedures, investing in industrial-strength washing machines for gear, installing vents in stations to limit exposure to fumes, and looking into saunas to help firefighters sweat out toxins post-fire response.