Local fire departments work to fight against high cancer rates

WAUSAU, Wis. (WAOW) — It’s no secret that firefighters risk their lives everyday by running into burning homes and buildings. But nowadays, a new fear is at the top of minds for these local heroes.

Cancer.

And it’s now the leading cause of death for firefighters.

According to The Firefighter Cancer Support Network, cancer caused 70 percent of the line-of-duty deaths for career firefighters in 2016.

“Nine percent of firefighters will gain cancer, rather than your majority of the public, so we are at a higher risk,” said Wausau firefighter paramedic Marlon Marks.

Firefighters also have a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population.

“For every five degrees of increased body temp, your skin absorption increases 400 percent,” Marks said. “So when we go into a structure fire, your skin is absorbing so much of the chemicals, the gases and the bad toxins that are out there.”

The carcinogens and toxins that come from burning materials are incredibly harmful for the human body and the risk keeps increasing as households change.

“Carpeting, wall coverings, window coverings, a lot of them have fire retardants in them, and we have found over the years, through studies, that those fire retardants are actually contributing to our higher rates of cancer,” said State Director of Wisconsin’s Firefighter Cancer Support Network Mark Villalpando.

But the toxins aren’t the only thing that firefighters are worried about. Tradition in the fire department is also a concern.

“For years you were also looked upon as being a rugged firefighter if your helmet was dirty, or jacket was dirty, or pants were dirty,” Villalpando said. “You barely washed anything because it was a badge of courage if you were to come out of a fire with everything and take it back to the station.”

Now, through education and safety programs, firefighters know looking tough comes at a price, which is why local departments have taken steps to help prevent firefighters from getting cancer.

“After every fire, we come out and do a dry deacon, we have wipes in the apparatus that we can use to wipe our bodies down, face cloths, and then we spray our turnout gear down with water and basically try to get rid of the stuff that is killing us,” Marlon said.

The Wausau Fire Department also washes their gear in an extractor and has more than one set of gear for firefighters to wear.

Marlon said the Wausau Fire Department is looking at getting saunas so firefighters are able to sweat out the toxic chemicals before showering.

Even with the risk of getting cancer, many firefighters say they don’t regret their career choice.

Villalpando has been battling colon cancer since 2014 and said he will “never be thankful enough to have this job.” But his job requires something different than it did 29 years ago when he started in the business: educating and informing other firefighters about the risks of cancer from the job.

And it’s something Villalpando will work hard to continue to share.

Ally Peters

Ally Peters

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