Hoosier firefighters face higher risk of dying from cancer, new study says

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. —Cancer is the biggest killer of firefighters across the nation, according to the International Association of Firefighters, and a new report from IUPUI says Hoosier firefighters are at an increased risk.

According to "Excess mortality among Indiana firefighters, 1985-2013," which was published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Hoosier firefighters face a 20% higher risk of dying from cancer than non-firefighters. The study, which looked at the cause of death of 2,818 firefighters from 1985-2013, found 30.4 died due to malignant cancers, making it the leading cause of death.

“And it’s basically due to cancers of the oral cavity, the kidney the pancreas, and the brain,” lead researcher Carolyn Muegge said.

For the largest fire department in the state, those numbers are a telling and disturbing trend.

According to Kevan Crawley, the IFD Division Chief for Health and Safety, there are roughly 1,200 people serving on the department, of those 1,200, at least 80 on the job now have had a cancer diagnosis,

“When I came to this  job, it  probably wasn’t a daily thing, but  probably about every other week, I have someone calling me saying, 'Hey, I just got diagnosed with cancer, and I don’t know what to do,'” Crawley said.

To help reduce the risk, Crawley says the department is focusing on limiting firefighter exposure to toxins. The department is now pushing for crews to keep their Self Contained Breathing Apparatus masks on in more situations, making sure they decontaminate themselves once done at a scene, limiting their exposure to exhaust fumes from their apparatuses, and modifying  their turnout gear (switching from the use of buckles to zippers on the coats) to keep toxins from making their way inside.

“So we have to give them a little bit of re-training to what they need to do to protect themselves.”

Ultimately, Crawley says it took 20-plus years to identify the magnitude of the cancer problem, which means it may take an equally long time to figure out if their precautions are a working solution for reducing cancer risk. Until then, Crawley says the department will continue to do its best to ensure firefighter personnel are kept as safe as possible.

“The best our firefighters can do right now is to follow these new procedures that we have because we’re doing it to help them,” Crawley said.