Building Materials Matter: Firefighters Burdened by Facility Infrastructure

The leading cause of occupational deaths for firefighters is cancer, killing two out of three firefighters who die in the line of duty, according to the CDC. Firefighters are increasingly being exposed to a “potent cocktail of carcinogens,” according to Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn, an advocate for firefighter health and safety who has lost over 200 colleagues to cancer.
“I’ve buried way too many friends over my 33 years,” Finn says. “Too many friends.”
Plastic fuels much of the toxic smoke that threatens firefighter health, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). These synthetic chemicals and toxins appear in carpeting, furniture, wires, and plastic piping, among other building materials. Toxic smoke is not just limited to fires in buildings, wildfires also generate huge volumes of smoke that can spread hundreds of miles.
“It’s not just plants and leaves burning, it’s homes and structures too,” Matt Alba, a San Francisco fire captain, told The Guardian. In recent years, residential and even commercial structures have expanded into forested areas. When wildfires occur, the plastics that burn within these structures combine with the smoke emitting from other materials, increasing its toxicity.
Although the full toxic effects of fires like California’s Camp Fire have yet to be identified, it is thought that houses containing plastics, household cleaning chemicals, and other materials played a major role in the smoke’s toxicity.
Twenty-eight-year firefighting veteran Tony Stefani went on his routine jog one day in January of 2001, in his career-long residence of San Francisco. Although a fit and healthy person, he began to experience abnormalities caused by the toxic fumes he had repeatedly been exposed to in fires.
“The last mile I could barely run, I had to walk,” he told The Atlantic. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer.
Keith Tyson, another firefighter with 34 years on the job, was told shortly after retiring that he had an aggressive form of prostate cancer, he told The Atlantic. Like Joseph Finn, Tyson estimates that a third of his colleagues have had some kind of cancer just in the past three years. “I’m not saying that every single one of those cancers was caused by the job….but at the same time…we have a problem,” Tyson said. This issue is not just limited to the countless career veterans, like Tyson and Stefani, who have suffered from cancer as a result of their occupation. According to Joseph Finn, the problem is growing among younger firefighters, too.
“We’re seeing a lot of younger members in their 40s, early 40s, who’ve got 20 years on the job, who are developing these cancers at a very young age,” he said in an interview with NBC News. “It blows my mind…these are guys who are 40 or 45 years old…and some of them have been on the fire department for just 10 or 15 years,” he told Boston Magazine.
One of these younger firefighters is lifelong Boston resident and firefighter Glenn Preston, a colleague and friend of Finn’s. A married father of four young children, Preston has already undergone chemotherapy treatment and had a bone marrow transplant at the age of 41. Preston was told by doctors of his cancer at the young age of 39, and as he told NBC News, the tumor was discovered in the lining of his heart.
The connection between firefighting an increased risk of cancer has become increasingly severe over the years, with the most deeply concerning figures appearing roughly 10 years ago, according to The Atlantic and the IAFF. A meta-analysis identified higher risks of multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate, and testicular cancers.
“The longer you’re a firefighter, the greater your chance of getting some kind of cancer….These are people who have a gladiator mentality, and they’re really tough. [But] now you have a different kind of danger,” Susan Shaw, ED of the Marine & Environmental Research Institute and environmental health science professor at SUNY Albany, told The Atlantic.
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