‘Cancer is now recognized as one of the major killers of both career and volunteer firefighters’

Published Oct 4, 2018 at 4:00pm

Cancer was responsible for 61-percent of line-of-duty deaths for career firefighters between 2002 and 2017, according to data from the International Association of Fire Fighters.

“Cancer is now recognized as one of the major killers of both career and volunteer firefighters, which we in the public safety community have only recently begun to admit,” said former Maryland-area Fire Chief James P. Seavey Sr. in the Lavender Ribbon Report on the link between cancer and firefighters.

“It is our duty to accept the need to change the safety culture as it relates to occupational cancer.”

Seavey was a chief at the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department. He passed away on Sept. 4 after battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a blood cancer. Seavey was a co-author of the August 2018 Lavender Ribbon Report with local retired Whitesboro Fire Chief Brian McQueen, whose own occupational cancer is currently in remission. The Report was sponsored by the National Volunteer Fire Council and the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

According to McQueen, the link between firefighters and cancer became more apparent in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center. Hundreds of firefighters responded to the scene to dig through the rubble, exposing themselves to carcinogenic building materials.

As the resulting cancer began to claim more and more lives afterwards, McQueen said firefighting organizations across the country began to investigate. McQueen said it was discovered that both professional and volunteer firefighters have a 62-percent chance of suffering occupational cancer from doing their jobs.

McQueen said the high risk of cancer is mostly due to carcinogens associated with the building industry, as well as
fire-retardant materials found in homes, business and furniture.

Over the past few decades, McQueen said most buildings are constructed with lighter-weight materials, like plastics, instead of heavy woods and metal. And most homes are designed with open concept rooms, requiring less solid frames. Furniture, likewise, is built to be more fire retardant. These plastics and materials have been found to be more carcinogenic than older materials, and when they burn in house and building fires, the responding firefighters are exposed.

Fire organizations are “working on trying to limit the number of carcinogenic toxins that are in furniture, but they have run into brick walls,” McQueen stated. Groups are also working to get more sprinklers in buildings.

Firefighters are twice as likely than the general population of being diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, and have a 129-percent increased risk of dying from mesothelioma, according to a report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The most likely cancers suffered by firefighters are lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer and kidney cancer.

​“One of the things we have to worry about is the firefighters themselves,” McQueen said.

​“It’s part of the brotherhood. Our mission is that no one will ever fight cancer or a life-threatening illness alone again.”

McQueen is a co-founder of the local Believe 271 Foundation, which raises money to help firefighters with expenses associated with cancer treatments, and other life-threatening illnesses. McQueen said the Foundation has spent $177,744 on 58 firefighters in Oneida and Herkimer counties over the past four years.