Chemical exposure keeps firefighters diligent to cancer risks

Chemical exposure keeps firefighters diligent to cancer risks

For firefighters, putting safety at risk comes with the job – and long after the smoke settles.

Studies show that firefighters are more likely develop cancer than the rest of us. The smoke and soot they are exposed to is filled with chemicals known to cause cancer – it gets embedded into the clothing designed to protect them.

“It gets in all your pores, all your skin, everywhere on your body,” said Michael Patterson, a firefighter at Spokane Valley Fire Department Station 10. Patterson knows just how lethal exposure to the cancerous smoke can be. But not too long ago, some simple risks were worn like a badge of service.

“It was typical for firefighters to have black helmets, sooty clothes or stained. It just wasn’t a common concern,” said Patterson. “Most departments didn’t know how bad it was, or how bad it was getting.”

There’s been a culture shift with departments around the country to keep protective gear as clean as the fire engines. On Wednesday, cancer prevention starts at the fire scene, before crews pack up and leave.

“You’ll have another firefighter in full gear. He’s going to spray off all the soot, insulation, and any kind of containments off your clothing,” Patterson said. “You’ll immediately use wet wipes to wipe down your neck, your hands, all areas of your face.”

Gear is sealed in a plastic bag and taken back to the station where it’s sprayed and scrubbed to remove biological hazards, plastics, and different types of residue. It then goes into an industrial washing machine which uses a special detergent to extract the harmful chemicals. The final step involves hanging the gear in a dryer.

The washer and dryer machines are not cheap – about $20,000 to buy and install. Due to budgetary issues, four of the ten SVFD stations don’t have them, so they send contaminated gear to Station 10 in Greenacres. The SVFD plans to purchase more machines in the coming years for the stations without them.