Statistics show that more than 2,500 firefighters and emergency personnel who responded at ground zero on 9/11 have since been diagnosed with cancer, according to a 2014 New York Post article.
Further research by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration shows that firefighters nationwide are at greater risk of developing cancer due to substances they are routinely exposed to during emergencies.
Meanwhile, a five-year study by OSHA found that the rate of malignant mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, is twice as high for firefighters in the U.S. than for the general population. The study also found that firefighters have an increased risk of death from lung cancer and leukemia compared to the general population.
Armed with this information, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer proposed new legislation Wednesday establishing the first national firefighter cancer registry, to be managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When responding to emergencies, the senator explained in a statement, these men and women are often exposed to harmful toxins, including noxious flame retardants and other chemicals used in common items like furniture, clothing and children’s toys. This exposure puts first responders at increased risk for testicular, stomach, brain and multiple myeloma cancers.
“Our brave firefighters … are on the front lines, risking their lives to protect our communities,” Mr. Schumer said. “It is so important for Congress to pass this critical legislation to establish a national voluntary firefighter cancer registry, so researchers can better track, treat — and one day prevent — the potential connections between firefighting and cancer.”
The senator outlined four goals for the national registry:
• Compiling and centralizing medical information about firefighters with cancer.
• Making this comprehensive anonymous data available to public health researchers.
• Improving understanding of cancer incidence and leading to the potential development of advanced safety protocols and safeguards for firefighters.
• Facilitating and expanding collaboration between the CDC and doctors, public health experts, clinicians and firefighters.
“Anything they can do in the aspect of awareness with firefighters and cancer, I think you’re going to find that the fire service is behind that,” Riverhead Fire Chief Kevin Brooks said of the proposed legislation.
“There are all kinds of proven studies today that cancer is going to overtake the fire service,” said Brendan Heller, assistant chief at the Wading River Fire Department. “With everything from new building materials to the way fires burn, the smoke today is more toxic than it was a long time ago … so that’s why any type of person in the emergency field is more at risk.”
Southold Fire Department Chief Jim Rich said he’s interested in learning more about the proposed legislation before taking an official stance on it, but added that he’s “for anything that would benefit firefighters.”
“It’s a well-recognized fact that firefighters have a higher rate of cancer than the general population, and particularly volunteer firefighters,” Mr. Rich said. “So anything that can help them I can only see as good. I’m optimistic it could be beneficial.”
According to the press release, the proposed registry would monitor the health of both career and volunteer firefighters — something Mr. Heller feels is an important aspect of the legislation.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a career or volunteer firefighter, you’re still putting your life at risk,” he said. “In the end, it’s the same job. So it’s definitely something good for everyone.”