Many of us connected to the fire service are well aware of the Firefighter Cancer Initiative. It is a multinational effort to educate former and current firefighters about the dangers we faced or face today in almost anything and everything that burns. Now, we know that from a trash can to a dumpster, from a small apartment to a massive mansion, from the tiny neighborhood market to the big-box stores, they all contain carcinogenic materials which are released as the material burns. Thus, most firefighters will mask-up for interior work and do not shed their bunker gear for overhaul, when we often sweat profusely which opens the pores of our skin and, those pores can also serve as an entry point of the carcinogens.
However, it was only in the last several years that we have learned the danger is not just external for us, but now can originate in our bunker gear, which is supposed to offer us excellent protection. This danger is referred to as PFOS/PFAS, nicknamed, the “forever chemicals,” as they will never deteriorate or breakdown in nature. Many believe that some of the strange or unexpected strains of cancer being seen in the fire service is caused by these chemicals.
A closer look at these chemicals that are in our gear at Notre Dame University under the watchful eye of Dr. Graham Peaslee. He and his students tested new and used bunker gear dating back to 1977 and found that all the gear they tested contained these forever chemicals.
As it turns out, I started my volunteer fire service in North Carolina in October 1977. I kept my gear in my car and in my home where, without knowing, I might have exposed my family to these carcinogenic chemicals. And that, has always sat very heavily on my “shoulders.” Adding to this concern is the fact that over a decade ago, a member of my family was diagnosed with melanoma. Thanks to our excellent dermatologists and the surgeon, that member is fine today.
As some of you may know, I have been dealing with my own health issues over the last two years. And though it took over twenty-two months and nine physicians to receive a diagnosis which has nothing to do with cancer.
I have become friends with a hematologist/oncologist whom I met back in 2016, when close friends asked me to accompany them to the doctor’s office to help explain some of the medical turns. Subsequently, since I am anemic, I see him on a regular basis. I taught him about the Firefighter Cancer Initiative, which he embraced and currently asks all new patients if they are or have been firefighters.
At my last visit several weeks ago, I asked him if his office might be able to order the PFOS/PFAS blood tests. He said he would, only if he could have my insurance cover the tests. When neither he nor his office called me to advise yes or no, I took the silence to mean the tests were unable to be done. I was wrong.
Earlier this week I received a call from my doctor’s assistant. When she started to tell me results, I wasn’t sure where this info was coming from. I politely asked her what test these results were for. Sure enough, these results were for testing the PFOS/PFAS in my bloodstream. Even though I had a bone marrow assay performed in 2018 (completely negative) I still worried that perhaps a cancer was part of my “mystery malady.” Thankfully, I was wrong.
All these tests came back with very minimal levels that are not deemed to either have any impact on my malady, nor were they at a level to be concerned about. Though I still have health problems (which is not uncommon at my age) cancer and PFOS/PFAS poisoning are not items I need to be concerned about.
It is my hope that reading this blog post will give you pause to consider being tested for PFOS/PFAS. Yes, you will need to check with both your physician and insurance company if they will cover the tests, since your job or your volunteering in the fire service exposes you to these chemical, each and every time you put on your gear.
Play it smart! While this might sound like an oxymoron, wear your full PPE on any active fire, again, from trash basket to a dumpster, from a room and contents fire to the “big-box store” fire, WEAR YOUR PPE!
Be the best firefighter you can be with a long and healthy career!
Founder & President of 5-Alarm Task Force Corp. and Creator & Host of the "5-Alarm Task Force" podcast.