“I had no idea. None,” said Dant, now a lieutenant for the Montgomery department who has survived cervical and thyroid cancer and eventually received workers’ compensation coverage. “I don’t recall it ever being spoken about.”
But that is changing, as awareness grows in firehouses and government officials commit money to researching the connection and buying new equipment to reduce risk.
A federal firefighter cancer registry is in the works to help scientists monitor the disease and trace links between firefighters’ exposures to carcinogens and incidence of cancer. Maryland recently expanded workers’ compensation protections for firefighters. Local fire departments in Maryland say they are trying to reduce their personnel’s exposure to carcinogens by funding new equipment and changing policies.
For instance, Anne Arundel County firefighters now exchange their hoods — the garments they wear under their helmets — for a clean one right after a fire, officials say. The Baltimore City Fire Department is among those purchasing special laundry equipment for turnout gear, the coats and pants worn to fires. Since 2016, Montgomery County has required firefighters to continue wearing their breathing masks post-fire as they examine burned areas for remaining sources of heat.
Research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that firefighters had a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and 14 percent higher risk of dying from it.
When common materials burn, they can produce toxic contaminants, including those known to cause cancer, that can seep into firefighters’ skin or be inhaled. These substances coat the protective gear the firefighters wear, which can spread the contamination to firehouses, personal vehicles and homes. And the diesel fumes from their trucks are also linked to cancer.
“We can’t take away every exposure, but we can do more than what we’re currently doing,” said Howard County Fire Chief Christine Uhlhorn.