New Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes walked over to his standing desk and searched for a video on his work computer.
The split-screen video shows two similar rooms about to be set ablaze. The primary difference between the two is the furniture.
That might seem minor, but the variation in decor was about to prove Rhodes’ point about an ongoing crisis that is causing severe health consequences for firefighters.
The furniture in one room was built from natural materials—wood and cotton, for example. The other room featured modern furniture made of plastic and other synthetics.
A flame is visible in the traditional room first, but it remains contained to one end of a couch. The fire looks tame for the first several minutes; Rhodes described it as a “campfire.”
In the modern room, once the flame appears, the fire spreads aggressively. Thick black smoke fills the air. The entire room reaches flashover—the point at which most or all flammable materials ignite, causing the fire to leave its room of origin—in less than 4 minutes.
It takes nearly 30 minutes for the other room to reach flashover.
Not only does the fire in the modern room burn faster, it burns hotter. And the burning synthetic materials emit toxic fumes that, according to research, will increase the likelihood of firefighters getting cancer.
A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shows firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer compared to the general U.S. population.
The risk is significantly higher for certain types of cancer. For example, firefighters are twice as likely to get testicular cancer or mesothelioma, according to the study.
Rhodes said materials used in modern furniture and buildings are largely to blame. When synthetics burn, they can release chemicals such as formaldehyde and cyanide that have potentially lethal health effects.
Fire departments across the country already are struggling with recruitment. Signing up to run into burning buildings has always been a stressful, dangerous job.
An increased risk of cancer makes the effort to find the next generation of firefighters even harder.
“When I got into the job, you wanted to serve, and you knew that there was a risk,” Rhodes said. “Today’s firefighter really has to go, ‘Wow, I’m going to get absorption through the skin.’ … I think a young firefighter going into the field has to really look at that like, ‘There’s a good chance I’m going to get cancer, and there’s nothing I can do about it.’
“I’m worried. I’m very worried.”
The science of smoke
Some might argue firefighters have an increased cancer risk regardless of what sort of materials might be in burning houses. They could get the disease naturally.
But numerous studies say materials found in synthetics release toxic gases into the air when they burn, said Rob Balsamo, Blackhawk Technical College’s coordinator of fire and EMS programs.
“Generally, if it was an organic material like hemp or cotton or wood or paper, the materials and gases that are in the smoke, we know what they are,” he said. “When we get into the synthetic materials, we have no idea what could be in there because everything starts to mix up. It’s just a conglomeration of stuff that’s in the smoke and the atmosphere when we go in.”
Rhodes said synthetic materials emit more heat when they burn, increasing an fire’s temperature.
That has health consequences, too. For every 5-degree increase in skin temperature, the body’s absorption rate rises by 400%, according to a meta-research paper compiled by the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.
Balsamo said the federal government and some state legislatures have passed cancer presumption laws to provide treatment funding for firefighters diagnosed with cancer.
There are 33 states with cancer presumption laws, according to the First Responder Center for Excellence. In Wisconsin, the statute covers firefighters who served for at least 10 years and showed no evidence of cancer prior to employment.
The Wisconsin statute covers most types of cancers but does not apply to cancers caused by tobacco products if the firefighter uses such products.
Balsamo said Blackhawk Tech’s programs inform students about the risks of being a firefighter. These broad discussions encompass all dangers of the job, but they also focus on how different materials combust.
Sometimes students will drop out of the program. Maybe they can’t handle claustrophobia in fire simulations or they struggle to navigate a ladder.
Nobody has ever specifically told Balsamo they’re leaving because of the cancer risk. Most willingly accept the hazards, he said.
“If we worried about all the smoke and the cancer, that type of thing, and you were stuck in a fire, they would never go in to rescue you,” Balsamo said. “But that’s what they’re being paid for or volunteering to do is to come in and save your life. They know what that risk is, so they’re going to go do it.”
What can be done?
It’s impossible to eliminate all risks involved with firefighting. But departments can enact policies to minimize health complications down the road, Balsamo said.
Rhodes, who was named Janesville’s fire chief in February, said his colleagues understand the increased likelihood of getting cancer. He praised them for their enthusiasm and dedication to the job.
Still, the risk is real. Rhodes worked with several firefighters at his previous jobs in Missouri who got cancer. They were all diagnosed before it was too late.
He wants to ensure Janesville’s personnel can say the same thing if they’re diagnosed with cancer.
Rhodes said he read an article recently that said fires “are almost treated like a hazmat incident now.” So firefighters are taught to get out of gear, clean their skin with wipes, toss their gear in the laundry and shower as soon as they can after responding to a fire, he said.
Students at Blackhawk Tech also practice washing and decontaminating their gear, even though the program uses gas burners to simulate fire, Balsamo said.
Janesville and many other departments also encourage clean eating and regular exercise.
As with any other profession, a healthy lifestyle acts as a preventive measure against cancer and other diseases.
Because toxic gases and smoke can get trapped in a firefighter’s gear, Rhodes is exploring the idea of purchasing a second set of gear for every firefighter. If another call came in before their first set could be washed, they would still have something to wear, he said.
That effort wouldn’t be cheap. The department is estimating it would cost more than $330,000 to purchase extra gear for everyone, he said.
It’s possible the department could slowly acquire extra gear over the next few years.
Rhodes also would like the department to fund regular health screenings for its employees. Those checks helped identify cancers in his Missouri colleagues before they spread.
Balsamo believes the general public has little awareness of the issue. While publicizing the cancer risk could further hurt a barren recruiting landscape, more awareness could help departments get more funding to improve proactive measures, he said.
Rhodes feels the same way. When he gave a speech at a recent graduation of five fire recruits, he believed it was important to outline the risks.
“I felt it was my duty to inform them. I questioned myself to even talk about that at their graduation because graduations are positive and awesome, and you’re celebrating somebody’s career,” he said.
“I wanted them to be very aware of the impact, the potential impact, that cancer can have on their career.”