Durham firefighters using research to understand work-related cancer risks

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — The risk for firefighters is far greater than you might think.

That risk may not be seen until years after the fire is out.

The loss of one of their brothers to work-related cancer is just one of the reasons the Durham Fire Department is trying to change that.

“There are a lot more chemicals being given off during the fires that what we saw 15 or 20 years ago when things were more natural fibers so it’s just a lot dirtier fire that’s become a leading exposure to a lot more chemicals that we never saw in the past,” said Battalion Chief Wayne Cheek. 

It also means that sometimes they fight to stay safe while fighting a fire later becomes a fight to stay alive.

Firefighter Corey Miller has watched that happen.  

“A lot of my friends have been affected with it and just to see the progression of the disease from when they initially get diagnosed to where they’re treated going through the treatment until they die,” he said.  “We’ve had several of our members have cancer, skin cancer, multiple myeloma, esophageal cancer, we just lost a member last December with that.” 

That fellow Durham firefighter was Wayne Page.

While he died of cancer last December, it was just last week, more than 7 months later, that his cancer was officially called work-related.

“And knowing we have over 400 people exposing themselves when they come to work, it makes it tough in seeing Wayne go through that for so long and his family having to deal with that it makes it difficult for everyone. So we’re hoping to move forward with this to make things better for everyone moving forward” said Cheek. 

To make that happen Durham Fire is now working with the Duke Cancer Institute.

Their research includes a bracelet that some firefighters are now wearing.

The bracelet retains the chemicals firefighters are exposed to.

Scientists will track that data and use it to help figure how to limit exposure and what can also be done after exposure.

But, that’s long term.

In the meantime, Durham Fire is doing other things. That includes decontaminating their fire gear on-site before it’s removed.

They’re also starting to make separate rooms for their gear and everything gets washed and dried after each fire.

“When Durham Fire Department pulls up on scene we’re ready to go to work it’s the stuff we’re trying to do after the fire,” said Miller. 

Durham Firefighters have two sets of gear.

So while one set is being cleaned the other is used for the next call. They’re lucky. A lot of fire departments only have one set. 

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health firefighters have twice the risk of getting mesothelioma, testicular cancer as well as a higher risk of getting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain, colon, skin, and prostate cancer.

“The biggest thing is preventing the exposure to our members that we can hopefully lessen the instances of cancer moving forward for years to come.

That sticks with you like Wayne. Absolutely it does and it affects all of us for a very long time” said Cheek. 

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