Firefighters learn tricks to lower cancer risk

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Fighting fires is a job with risks. But, firefighters face more dangers than meet the eye. They also have a higher potential for cancer and not just lung cancer. It’s just about any kind of cancer.

“We can’t see it, we can’t taste it. It’s almost like carbon monoxide. We don’t even know it’s there,” said Champaign Fire Department Battalion Chief of Training Gary Gula.

“It” is harmful carcinogens; something 15-years ago, firefighters didn’t have to worry about. It’s because building materials now contain a lot more plastic than they once did.

“We live in a plastic society. Everywhere we go, that’s what you have. The chemicals that are made up to make those things, that’s all great, until it starts on fire. It releases all kinds of gases, the byproducts of combustion. That smoke that’s given off has carcinogens in it. There some of the carcinogens in there causing cancer that scientists can’t even find out,” said Gula.

Compared to the general population, firefighters have a nine percent higher chance of chance and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths. Exposure to those carcinogens is something firefighters can’t avoid, but less exposure will lower their risk.

“We as firefighters are going into a burning building, literally, putting the fire out. We’re exposed to all that smoke. It’s on us.”

One of the most important things for firefighters to do to reduce their risk of cancer is to take off their turnout gear as soon as they return from a fire. They then put that turnout gear into an extractor that removes harmful carcinogens.

“A lot of times, we would stay dirty for hours. We just didn’t think about it. It was kind of cool to be dirty. You’re a fireman. Now, it’s not cool,” said Gula.

“The key is being proactive. “Taking a shower within one hour of returning to the firehouse is an essential thing. You don’t always think about that. Safety Stand Down gives the basic firefighter the opportunity to stop, think and learn about critical safety risk in this profession,” said Illinois Fire Service Director Royal Mortenson.

Area fire departments have felt the impact of cancer personally. One firefighter with the Champaign Fire Department developed lung cancer after only five years as a firefighter, and an Urbana firefighter died of cancer a few years ago. That’s why they want to do everything they can to prevent it.

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