Special Report: The Toxic Chemicals In Modern-Day Fires

Firefighters Need Funding For Equipment to Limit Exposure

They risk their lives to save ours every day, but as time passes we’re losing a lot of firefighters to the invisible danger of cancer.

According to a study from the CDC, about 68 percent of firefighters end up getting cancer compared to around 22 percent of the general public. At this point there isn’t a lot of information yet about how all of these firefighters are coming down with different kinds of cancer, but research points to some of the toxins released into the air when a house goes up in flames.

“A lot of the stuff inside the house has changed,” said Duluth Fire Captain Andy Golz. “It’s made the fire environment worse for us.”

Golz says a variety of household items become toxic to firefighters especially when they burn into the air.

“The cleaning items you keep under the sink, when they burn they release other chemicals which are toxic and can cause cancer,” said Golz.

For homeowners that have kids with toys, a play area turns into a poison cocktail that creates a lot of smoke and soot with cancer-causing chemicals.

A sofa with flame retardants actually isn’t a firefighter’s friend when it ignites.

“The state of Minnesota banned four chemicals used in flame retardants,” said Golz.

Wool, wood and basic materials are a thing of the past, almost everything is plastic in modern homes. Breathing in chemicals can be avoided with proper gear, but what’s really concerning the fire service now is how it’s coming in contact with their skin. As the fire heats up, so do their bodies and their skin can absorb up to 400 times more toxins from the air.

“A couple of days ago I was in a fire, I took a shower and could still smell smoke coming off me,” said Golz. “It’s not for lack of cleaning. It’s because it’s in your skin. It slowly releases and it causes cancer as it builds.”

As part of a new cancer prevention program in Duluth created by Fire Chief Dennis Edwards, some changes have been made including new apparatuses that now have a special storage for firefighters to put their dirty gear in before they leave a scene. When they return, they use special extracting washing machines after every fire to clean the chemicals off.

Chief Edwards says it is the most important thing firefighters can do.

“I have the chance to change this trend, I have to change it in our fire department,” said Chief Edwards.

Edwards says they could be doing more, if they had the funding. They’d like to have two sets of turnout gear for each firefighter. They also currently only have three of the special machines, but have eight total stations.

Now a group that answers everyone else’s calls for help has one of their own.

“We need help,” said Chief Edwards. “We need politicians to understand what’s happening. We need the public, all of the people in the communities around the world to understand we owe it to our firefighters to spend the money to make it safer.”

President of the Minnesota Fire Chief’s Association, George Esbensen says it’s a dollars and cents issue across the state.

“Minnesota ranks 21st in population, and 45th in fire service investment,” said Esbensen. “Fifty million more a year would make us 44th, 100 million would only get us to 40th.”

Esbensen says Duluth is a leader in the state for preventing cancer, the cost to get some other smaller departments up to speed would be huge.

“A second set of turnout gear is $1,500, times 20,000 firefighters in Minnesota so that would be $3,000,000 if done state-wide,” said Esbensen. “A gear extractor, installed for $12,000 a piece, there’s 780 fire departments in the state.”

Esbensen says protecting the people who protect us is priceless.

“If we’re going to be in the business of having firefighters, there’s a fundamental level of cost, equipment, and infrastructure,” said Esbensen. “You have to properly support men and women who are volunteering, and working for peanuts.”

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar has sponsored a bill to try and get answers to firefighters are getting certain kinds of cancer, by creating a nationwide firefighters cancer registry. It would help track and determine what kinds of exposure is leading to specific types of cancer.