Cancer: the silent killer wreaking havoc on firefighters

Health

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Firefighters earn a living battling countless dangers as they tamp down blazes.

But unlike a structure fire, their most prolific killer is silent, invisible, and far more deadly.

“[Firefighter] culture for a very long time was the guys who had the dirtiest helmets and the dirtiest turnouts and they smelled like a structure fire, that it was a badge of honor that they had,” Bakersfield Fire Captain Mike Taylor said. “Well now, that situation has changed.”

Cancer, already more common among firefighters than the general population, is on the rise. Since 2002, about two out of three line-of-duty firefighter deaths have been caused by cancer, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters. For certain types of cancer, like mesothelioma or esophageal cancer, firefighters are nearly twice as likely to contract it.

For Taylor, those statistics aren’t just numbers. He’s lived that loss.

“My father was a great man. He wanted to spend time with his family,” Taylor said. “It was heartbreaking to see his long career come to an end, and then shortly after retirement, him pass away so he wasn’t able to enjoy retirement.”

Taylor’s father David, a captain with the Fresno City Fire Department, died of cancer in 2018. His grandfather, who built fire engines for that department, succumbed to kidney cancer. He’s seen firefighter after firefighter retire, and within years, fall to cancer.

“That seems to be the story of so many retirees,” Taylor said.

Bakersfield Fire, like departments across the nation, has measures in place to combat the rising tide of cancer deaths — machines to better clean uniforms and funnel exhaust out of garages.

Taylor says for firefighters, the risks will never completely go away.

“We’ve got to go into a fire,” Taylor said. “Products of combustion are carcinogens, that’s a well-known fact. So we’re always going to be exposed to those.”

For now, Taylor says staying in shape and maintaining general health is one way to lessen health risks down the line.

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