Cancer Rates Among Firefighters Are Skyrocketing

Running toward a burning building is in the job description. Danger is a daily part of life for a firefighter.

What wasn't in the job description for Lt. Adam Lamb was throat cancer.

"He sticks the needle in there, pulls it out, five minutes later he says you have a squamous cell carcinoma in your neck, you have cancer," said Lamb.

Lamb would endure 38 weeks of radiation and chemo.

"I'm one of those people for me everything's positive and uh… I lost that for awhile and it was dark," he said.

Darkness fell on Duane Inglin just this past January. He had already lost a brother to brain cancer. Now Duane's doctors told him he had prostate cancer - at age 47.

Two firefighters diagnosed with two different cancers, but with toxin exposure in common, flame retardant chemicals designed to protect against fire that pose a potentially bigger threat.

A recent study found firefighters had higher rates of cancer than the rest of us. In fact with some cancers the risk in firefighters is more than double.

Because where there is fire there is smoke, toxic smoke. There are flame retardants in our clothes, our carpets, our furniture. When it burns, it releases chemicals that quite literally stick to firefighters.

It coats their gear. It seeps into their skin. And even after the fire is out they're still breathing in what it left behind.

The skyrocketing cancer rates are no coincidence.

"We're losing too many firefighters and we're talking about one a week and nationally almost daily that another firefighter is reported to have died from cancer," said Kelly Fox, Washington State Council of Firefighters.

Kirkland Fire Captain Bill Hoover has been to so many funerals in recent years he's lost count.

"I think of a lot of people in my life, my fire life and how they've met their end. And predominantly it's cancer," he said.

Oh and by the way, Capt. Hoover has cancer too.

"I've had cancer twice," he said. "You go to bed knowing there's a pretty good chance it's gonna come back again."

Everyone here will tell you, removing toxins from products entirely is daunting. A bill before the state senate to ban toxic flame retardants, stalled in the senate, so firefighters work to minimize their exposure. Some stations have spare sets of gear to swap out. Others have specialized washing machines

"It's overwhelming to the point where you feel like you're just in this hole and you can't climb out. And then that hand comes down and someone pulls you up and they're slappin' you around and bringing you back to reality," said Lt. Lamb.

It's a reality that never was part of the job description, but a camaraderie that's never been stronger.

The study looked at more than 30 types of cancer. A second phase of the study will look into how exposure to certain chemicals might be linked to specific cancers


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