Modern housing materials can pose cancer risk to firefighters

Newer homes are burning hotter and faster, and it’s presenting a health risk for firefighters.

DENVER — Newer homes are burning hotter and faster than before, and it’s presenting a health risk for firefighters. It’s manifesting as cancer, even for younger members of the firefighting force in Colorado. 

Greg Pixley with the Denver Fire Department said over the last 20 years, 61% of firefighter deaths have been the result of cancer. Many line-of-duty deaths were previously not reported as occupational cancer but it’s now being recognized retroactively.

Fire departments have also started noticing the firefighters falling sick are younger. 

“The cancer was prevalent in younger firefighters lately,” said David Foster with the International Association of Firefighters. “Last five or six years, firefighters in their late 20s and early 30s are being diagnosed with aggressive forms of cancer that we usually saw in retirees.”

Both Foster and Pixley said newer building and construction materials are contributing to the health risks. 

“Infused into our everyday products at home, furniture, computer and televisions, with synthetics, with and petroleum products — with these types of chemicals, they burn hotter and produce far more toxic smoke,” said Pixley. 

The manmade chemicals, PFAS and PFOS, might be in clothes, flooring, stain removers or cookware.

“Certain PFAS can accumulate and stay in the human body for long periods of time. Long-term exposure to PFAS/PFOA/PFOS, in high concentrations, causes a buildup in the body. This buildup may have negative health effects like a risk of thyroid disease and testicular, kidney and bladder cancers,” according to the U.S. Fire Administration website.

“It congregates in certain areas of your body. That’s where we are finding areas of cancer, the brain, the stomach, general urinary tract, blood cancers,” said Foster. 

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Foster also said another chemical called OSB can be found in roofing and flooring, and is useful until it burns — and it burns hotter than other materials might.

“The time we have to safely work inside a home now is not what it used to be,” said Pixley. “If we can put the fire out in 20 minutes, we are doing ourselves a favor in terms of safety for firefighters and anyone trapped. If it goes beyond 20 minutes in newer style of construction, firefighters start to use internal clocks so we don’t find ourselves trapped in a home that might collapse.” 

The concern is also about these chemicals ending up on firefighter uniforms and their skin, and the possibility of it being absorbed into their bodies even with firefighting gear. Both Foster and Pixley said there are chances for exposure, especially for some firefighters who may not have multiple sets of gear. 

While some of the impacts of these chemicals are being studied, Pixley said there are health side effects that are still being looked into and the health impacts aren’t clear yet.

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Now, new firefighters are being trained on cancer prevention. This includes making sure gear is rinsed off, and reducing contamination and exposure. 

For departments with the budget, firefighters have more than one set of gear and the ability to rotate their gear through a thorough cleaning. That’s not always possible for smaller departments. 

Foster said they are talking to state and federal legislators but that tackling the issue is nuanced and complicated. 

They are in the middle of a tug-of-war between increased fire threats and the economics of development. 

“Firefighters are paid from government tax collection, stable economy, to fund a fire department, so there are firefighters there to respond in those emergencies. Development is a key part of that,” he said. 

Foster said they are also working to get a seat at the table with developers to find ways to work together. 

They’ve also previously worked and advocated for safer construction, so buildings can withstand a fire longer and it’s safer for firefighters to enter the building. Now that conversation has morphed into talking about cancer and chemicals. 

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