INDIANAPOLIS - The biggest threat to the health and safety of firefighters isn’t fires – it’s heart disease and cancer.
First responders face up to 20 known carcinogens lurking inside the smoke and heat every time they battle a fire.
Over the past decade, studies have demonstrated a credible and biological link between cancer and fighting fires.
Indianapolis Fire Department Capt. Tim McDonnell began his career before firefighters wore oxygen masks. He was diagnosed with nasal cancer 13 years ago.
"You crawl into that room there is a probability that the only thing that's natural is you. Everything else is synthetic or treated with a synthetic," McDonnell said.
Studies show that firefighters contract certain cancers at a rate far higher than the general population. The difficulty is that exposure to known carcinogens and visible malignancies can take 20 years to develop.
Doctors told firefighter Sam Scott that his pancreatic cancer was 10 to 15 years old before it was detected, which makes it difficult to prove the link between his cancer and his job.
"There's always a possibility, there's known symptoms. Doctors can't confirm or deny. But it's there," Scott said.
Firefighters are exposed to carcinogens everywhere, including in the contaminated turnout gear they repeatedly wear and diesel fumes in fire houses and at fire scenes. And some contaminated gear is stored in fire houses, and in the case of volunteers -- in their personal vehicles and homes.
"At this point, it is indicating that there are excess cancers in firefighters as compared to the general U.S. population believed to be related to work as firefighters,” Steven Moffatt, director of Public Safety Medical, said.
Fighting fires can always be inherently dangerous work, but the attention to health and disease will lead to better equipment and technology to protect firefighters from the dangers they can't see.
Heart attacks kill as many firefighters as fires. Studies show that a firefighter is up to 100 times more likely to die of cardiac arrest while fighting a fire than a firefighter performing non-emergency duties.
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