Bath Fire Chief Lawrence Renaud explains how the department’s extractor removes dangerous contaminants from firefighter gear. (Darcie Moore / The Times Record)

Portland firefighter Mike Nixon has been battling fires since 1986. Every time he enters a burning building, he is immersed in “this toxic soup of chemicals that are off-gassing.”

Nixon said his repeated exposure to toxic chemicals are to blame for an aggressive case of melanoma, for which he was diagnosed in 2012. “It spread from my skin and they actually found cancer cells in my lymph system,” Nixon said.

Nixon isn’t alone. Cancer kills more firefighters than heart disease — the No. 1 cause of death of every other American. That statistic has helped prompt fire departments in Maine to invest thousands of dollars in new equipment to clean coats, pants, helmets and other firefighting gear of potentially deadly contaminants picked up in the course of duty.

High rates of cancer 

Firefighters have developed high rates of up to 30 varieties of cancer, from abdominal cancer to brain, colon and gastrointestinal cancer to lymphoma and leukemia, according to John Martell, president of Professional Fire Fighters of Maine. 

Martell said 61% of firefighter line-of-duty deaths among union members across the country since 2002 have been caused by cancer. By comparison, heart disease is to blame for 18% of deaths, and is the leading cause of death for both men and women, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to a 2015 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters face a 9% higher rate of cancer diagnoses and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths compared to the general U.S. population. Firefighters have twice the risk of being diagnosed with testicular cancer and mesothelioma as the general population.

“The modern fire environment is much more toxic than it used to be,” said Dr. Susan Shaw, the director of the Shaw Institute and an adjunct professor of Public Health, Environmental Health Sciences at the State University of New York, Albany. 

According to Shaw, modern homes and buildings are filled with plastics and synthetics used in furniture, carpets and electronics. Building insulation is treated with flame retardants and waterproof Teflon chemicals. During fires, those chemicals are released into the air and smoke.

In 2013, Shaw’s institute analyzed toxic chemicals in the blood of 12 firefighters after a large fire in San Francisco. The study provided the first clear evidence that firefighters’ bodies absorb high levels of flame retardants and their byproducts formed by combustion while firefighting. Firefighters had higher levels and different patterns of these cancer-causing chemicals in their blood than the general population.

“It’s all about combustion of toxic material,” Shaw said. “Those things are carcinogens — cancer-causing substances that get into the skin, into the mouth, get swallowed and into the lungs of the firefighters.”

Cancer has a latency of about 20 years in most people but some of the younger firefighters are being diagnosed with aggressive brain cancers within 5 years, Shaw said.

“Firefighters are just getting cancer at a very high rate and this panic started to sweep through the fire service,” she said. “People in their 40s are dying … after so much exposure.”

Reducing the risks

Bath is among the local departments working to protect its firefighters from cancer-causing chemicals.

The city recently spent $30,000 to transform a storage room at its fire station into a decontamination room, according to Bath Fire Chief Lawrence Renaud. Bath Fire Department installed an extractor system in 2018, designed to clean personal protective equipment without damaging the fabric, which would make it ineffective. This spring, the department added a FireLinc app to the system, making it the first fire department in the state to track detailed information about every wash. The FireLinc app lets the department access all turnout gear records to ensure it is meeting department safety standards. 

While Bath requires its firefighters to clean their gear after contamination from a fire that leaves soot or dirt on them, the National Fire Protection Association may soon recommend washing whenever firefighters use their breathing equipment, Renaud said. 

Brunswick Fire Chief Ken Brillant said no one was talking about cancer exposure when he started in the fire service.

“There was a time when people didn’t wash gear … and dirty gear was a sign of a seasoned salty veteran,” said Brillant. “That is not the culture that we live in today.”

Now the fire department replaces gear by rotation so firefighters get new gear every five to six years. This gives them a backup set of gear.

Firefighters use wipes to clean their face, neck and hands right after a fire. Dirty gear is rinsed off at the scene, bagged and brought back to the station to be washed. The station has had extractors for about 15 years to remove chemicals from the fire gear. Firefighters shower and get into clean uniforms back at the station, too.

Brunswick is planning for a new $13.5 million central fire station that will replace an outdated 100-year-old building. The new station will have a decontamination area near the truck bays to store, wash and dry contaminated gear and for firefighters to shower before entering the living quarters and offices.

Brillant said he doesn’t know yet if the station will be equipped with the existing extractor or new extractors. One machine can cost upwards of $10,000 so it depends on how much money is in the fire station budget.

Brillant couldn’t estimate how much the new safety features will cost in total for the new station until the town irons out design plans for the building. 

“Unfortunately no matter what you do, you’re not going to end (the risk of cancer for firefighters),” Brillant said. “But what we want to do it slow it down and reduce those numbers.”

Limited options

The sentiment was echoed by Nixon, who heads up Maine’s chapter of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

There’s no way to reduce the risk to zero, he said.

“We can try to do the best we can to educate ourselves, to protect ourselves with the gear available,” he said. “There’s manufacturers of fire protective gear doing the best they can to block more particulates from passing through gear and passing to skin.”

There may be taxpayers who don’t understand why a fire department is trying to buy a gear washer, but the message has to get out there, Nixon said.

Although the number of large fires is dropping, “cancer rates are going up,” he said.

Nixon underwent two surgeries to remove part of his ear and lymph nodes on the left side of his neck in order to treat his cancer. He underwent a month of high-dose chemotherapy and 11 months of maintenance chemotherapy, treatments of drugs used to kill fast-growing cells in the body. 

He’d been out of work for almost six months due to treatment, but there’s been no sign of cancer since.

“When I started in the fire service, we didn’t wear protective hoods over our heads, so that was always exposed during fires,” Nixon said. 

Even if firefighters did wear hoods, they didn’t block chemicals from reaching their skin. Today’s hoods do a much better job blocking particles and gasses, Nixon said.

“We’re finding a lot of cancers we’re getting are (from) exposure through our skin and into our bloodstream,” he said.

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