Calls for Studying Link Between Firefighters and Cancer

By Erin Delmore

“The words ‘putting our lives on the line’ has truly taken a new meaning these days,” said New Jersey State Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association President Eddie Donnelly.

The most dangerous part of a firefighter’s job strikes long after the flames have gone out. Cancer is the leading cause of death.

“It’s not the fires, it’s not being out on the highways that kill us all the time, it’s the long-term exposure over and over and over again to the toxins and carcinogens that we are breathing in,” Donnelly said.

Congressman Bill Pascrell and Sen. Bob Menendez rallied support to create a voluntary, national database among America’s Bravest to study the relationship between cancer and career-long exposure to toxic fumes.

“The links between cancer and our 9/11 first responders and the exposure to toxins at Ground Zero have been well documented and discussed. And while that was an extraordinary and tragic event, that continued to take lives, for which we solemnly remember, there’s been little attention paid to a firefighter’s routine and daily exposure to dangerous toxins over the course of their entire career,” Menendez said.

Firefighters are 14 percent more likely to die of cancer than the general population, according to a 2013 study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. They show higher rates of multiple types of cancer, including lung, brain, kidney, bladder cancer and leukemia.

Firefighters are exposed to more carcinogens than the general public. That’s because of the materials that burn during a fire. And they stay on the equipment and transfer onto that person’s skin long after they get home.

“Years ago, everything was wood. Out windows were wood, most of our furniture was wood. A lot of things that we had in our house were made out of wood-based products. Today, everything is made out of plastics. Our drapes, our windows, our furniture, the stuff that our furniture is made out of, our sofas are made out of. All are producing higher levels of the toxins and carcinogens than we had years ago,” Donnelly said.

The Firefighter Cancer Registry Act has bipartisan support in Congress. The aim is to collect health data from career and volunteer firefighters, make it available to scientists and medical professionals to develop better safeguards, equipment and protocols.

Gene Dannenfelser remembers being handed a paper mask at Ground Zero.

“I noted to my colleagues that were with me, I said, the federal employees that are here, they’re putting in the air monitoring equipment, are wearing full-face cartridge respirators, I said, there’s something wrong with this picture,” the retired Camden County Fire Marshal’s Office deputy chief said.

Dannenfelser was diagnosed with cancer. A federal agency charged with figuring out a cause pointed to his service at Ground Zero and Fresh Kills Landfill. Late last year, Congress reauthorized the Zadroga Act, granting health benefits to first responders suffering from 9/11-related illnesses.

Firefighters urged New Jersey lawmakers to harness that goodwill from Washington and join 34 other states that have presumptive disability laws, which would automatically link instances of cancer with the job, unless proven otherwise.