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(WHNT News 19 file)
(WHNT News 19 file)

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – A floor that collapses without warning. A flashover that engulfs an entire room in flames. Shifting winds that suddenly change the direction of a wildfire.

Firefighters have an inherently dangerous job. Most think they know the risks when they join the service.  But researchers say there is a hidden danger that’s killing a staggering number of firefighters.


It’s a connection that went largely unrecognized until the years after 9/11 – when hundreds of first responders began developing cancer.  In September, three retired New York firefighters who responded to Ground Zero died of cancer on the same day.

One landmark study from the University of Cincinnati in 2006 found a probable firefighting link to three cancers and a possible link to nine others.

The risk doesn’t just lie with large-scale disasters. A common house fire can release a carcinogenic mix of chemicals from hydrogen cyanide gas to asbestos.

Wayne Hastings spent years battling fires with the Huntsville Fire Department. A second-generation firefighter, he was just 20-years-old when he joined the service in 1969.

Now 65, he’s battled three different cancers.

“The first thing I had was a bladder cancer,” he says.

“Next thing that happened was a (cancerous) mass that developed between the outside skin and the bone tissue in my head.”

Hastings was diagnosed with a third cancer – skin cancer – shortly after retiring as a captain in 2010.

“The cancers were all just outside of where the mask would have been sitting. So, obviously – at some point – I was in something that was very carcinogenic.”

The exposure continues even after the flames.

While crews wear face masks and tanks of compressed air during a fire, this heavy protective gear is often removed once the perceived danger has passed – exposing the firefighters to a toxic soup of soot and smoke.

As Captain Frank McKenzie of the Huntsville Fire Department explains, “this is probably the danger a lot of people don’t see.”

McKenzie says his department now uses a device, called a MultiRAE, to help determine whether levels are safe enough for crews to remove their gear while they search for hot spots and begin the salvage process.

If the device shows levels that are too high for human safety, the firefighters must keep their gear on. But even then, there’s no avoiding the chemical-laden soot that seeps through their skin.

The International Association of Firefighters is hopeful new technology will lead to turnout gear that provides better soot protection. In the meantime, the IAFF has set up a cancer registry to keep track of how many members have been diagnosed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also gotten involved in the issue. The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is currently wrapping up a four-year study of cancer in firefighters.

In the most recent update from 2014, NIOSH study director Dr. Robert Daniels stated:

“We found certain cancers were modestly increased in our firefighters. In May of this year, a study of Nordic fire fighters published similar findings. The Nordic study examined cancer diagnoses among 16,422 male fire fighters from five Nordic countries. As in our study, the Nordic study found moderately increased cancer risk among the fire fighters compared to the general population. Together, these two studies strengthen evidence of a relation between fire fighting exposures and cancer.”

Additional resources​

  • ​The IAFF cancer registry is open to IAFF members and family members to report a cancer diagnosis…………(​)
  • Currently available data from the CDC study may be viewed here….… A final report is expected later this year.
  • ​​Here is research from the U.S. Fire Administration, a division of FEMA, on the risk of known toxic substances and carcinogens associated with firefighting.