Database for MI firefighters would aid cancer research

Michigan lawmakers have proposed legislation they said aims to track and respond to the health care needs of firefighters.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, co-sponsored legislation to establish a national registry to monitor cancer diagnoses in firefighters.

According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, nearly 60 percent of firefighters will die from cancer.

“Creating this voluntary registry is a good first step toward determining the unique risks to firefighters’ health,” Peters said in a prepared statement. “This information will allow us to research preventive techniques and design better protective equipment for our first responders, as well as develop advanced, effective medical treatments to provide the best care to firefighters diagnosed with cancer.”

“This bill was introduced in February of this year and was referred to the (Senate) Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions,” explained Allison Green, press secretary for Peters.

The International Association of Fire Fighters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the Congressional Fire Services Institute and the International Association of Fire Fighters, Michigan Chapter, support the bill.

“Firefighters are exposed to potentially harmful toxins every day as they work to protect our homes, businesses and communities,” Mark Docherty, president of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union, said in a prepared statement. “By learning more about the risks firefighters face in the line of duty, we can improve on-the-job safety and help prevent and treat the life-threatening illnesses and health consequences they are more likely to face down the road.”

According to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters have a 14 percent increased risk of dying from cancer compared to the general population. Firefighters are also much more likely to be diagnosed with unique forms of cancer, such as malignant mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

“Fighting fire is fighting fire, whether you’re paid or volunteer,” said Troy Fire Chief David Roberts. Troy’s firefighters are volunteers. “The same hazards exist for any firefighter.

“The (protective) gear is designed to protect from the heat, not the toxins,” Roberts explained. “Newer (building) materials present greater hazards — so many synthetics are involved.

“We’re taking precaution,” he said. “We wear self-contained breathing apparatus to protect us from toxins from fire.”

He noted that the toxins also get through skin. “We wear gloves, but the smoke gets in and around covered areas.”

Roberts said he hopes the legislation brings awareness to the fire service and to firefighters to take as many precautions as possible to keep the toxins off of their skin, including by keeping their turnout gear clean.

“We have special extractors,” he said. Firefighters use them to clean the gear. “It used to be a badge of honor to have turnout gear that looked well-used,” Roberts said.

He noted that Troy firefighters take their gear home or leave it in their cars, which could expose family members to the toxins on the gear.

“We require them to clean it to eliminate exposure to the byproducts,” he said.

232