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Firefighters see increasing cancer rates due to toxins in smoke

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (April 16, 2015) -- There is something out there that’s just as dangerous to firefighters than the fire itself: cancer. Over the last decade, the fears of cancer in firefighters has grown significantly. Some are calling it an epidemic. It's what's in your home these days that makes it so dangerous to firefighters.

New modern furniture is made with material that gives off a toxic chemical that can be just as dangerous as carbon monoxide.

"It's that sneaky kind of long-term killer of our people who are in the profession of firefighting," said Lieutenant Troy Wymer with the Wayne Township Fire Department.

Your modern living room furniture, if on fire, can give off lethal levels of hydrogen cyanide which is 35 times more toxic than carbon monoxide. Firefighters breathe it in or absorb through their skin. It's cancerous and has become a larger threat over the last decade.

"We're seeing firefighters, especially those that are in the mid to late stages of their careers, who are getting cancer and unfortunately a high number of them are dying from it," Lt. Wymer said.

Shawn Longerich, Executive Director for the Fire Smoke Coalition in Indianapolis, added, "Firefighters are dropping dead from cancer all over the world. It's not any different in Indianapolis than it is in Argentina."

Longerich is hosting a Smoke Symposium on Saturday to teach firefighters about simple rules to lower the risk. It's something as simple as wearing the oxygen mask.

"If you look at the volunteer population, half of them don't have air so when they're now being exposed to a much deadlier smoke, the only thing that they're doing is breathing, ingesting and absorbing all of that smoke," Longerich said.

Another simple way to lower the risk is to take a shower to get the smoke particles off the skin. Wayne Township also uses a gas meter to measure the air and make sure it's safe to breathe without oxygen.