The largest fire department in Texas wants greater investment to reduce firefighters’ exposure to carcinogens. The Houston Chronicle’s Zach Despart writes this week about a complaint filed with the Texas Commission Fire Protection by the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 341. The firefighters assert that the city fails to comply with national standards for decontamination and cleaning of their protective clothing (i.e., “bunker gear,”) which puts their 4,000 members at greater risk of exposure to carcinogens.
Despart writes that none of the city’s fire stations have equipment to deep-clean bunker gear. Instead, the clothing is sent once per year to a firm for deep cleaning. The Chronicle reporter found Houston’s policies on decontaminating gear were less rigorous compared to those in the state’s other large cities including Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin. The ranks of those departments total 1,800, 1,600, and 1,100 employees, respectively.
Firefighter Mark Herring, 55, had this to say about the once-a-year cleanings of the bunker gear. He told Despart:
“Well, it’s clean and smells good and all that, but in those other 11 months throughout the year, we’re wearing dirty gear.”
Herring, 55, is one of 10 active-duty firefighters in Houston who have cancer. He has renal cell carcinoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. IAFF Local 341 told the Chronicle that three more firefighters with cancer have been medically discharged this year because they are too ill to work.
Houston’s fire chief Sam Peña said the department is drafting new policies to address dirty bunker gear. In the meantime, Peña told the Chronicle:
“If it becomes too dirty to simply rinse off, firefighters can request an additional deep-cleaning and wear borrowed gear in the interim.”
Firefighter Herring, however, told the Chronicle that Peña’s plan works poorly in practice and that you can struggle to borrow gear that fits correctly.
I wrote previously about firefighters’ fears of developing and dying from cancer. Their concerns are well founded. Analyses of data from cancer registries find that firefighters are at a higher risk of developing melanoma, multiple myeloma, and cancers of the esophagus, lung, brain, kidney, and other sites (e.g., here, here, here, here.) During their fire calls and in their fire station, firefighters are exposed to a toxic soup of chemicals, stress, and other hazards that increase their risk of cancer.
A study of cancer incidence and deaths among firefighters in San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia that was published in 2015 brought greater attention to the problem. It led the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the National Volunteer Fire Council, and others to work with lawmakers to establish a national cancer registry for fire fighters. Reps. Chris Collins (R-NY) and Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ) and Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act in February 2017. It passed the House in September 2017 and passed the Senate in May 2018. This week on July 9, President Trump signed the bill into law.
The bill authorizes $2.5 million a year for five years to the CDC to administer the registry. (It’s premature to say whether NIOSH will manage the registry, but it seems logical since the agency also has a firefighter health and safety research program.) It’s success will depend on the support of stakeholder groups to encourage firefighters—whether volunteer, paid on-call, or career—-to contribute their personal information to the registry. The next step will be leadership by the bill’s sponsors (and lobbying by firefighters) to ensure the $2.5 million is appropriated.
Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters noted the following about the legislative victory:
“Today, most fire fighters who die in the line of duty are not killed by smoke or fire, but rather by the hidden scourge of cancer. The Firefighter Cancer Registry Act will help us learn more about the link between cancer and firefighting.”
That takes me back to the firefighters in Houston and elsewhere who have front-line knowledge about the hazards they encounter, precautions taken, and protections not provided. As I learned from Zach Despart’s reporting in the Houston Chronicle, only one of the city’s 94 fire stations has a diesel exhaust capture system. None of the stations has an extractor to deep-clean firefighters’ bunker gear. The Firefighter Cancer Registry could be a powerful tool to capture such data.