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Summit on Fire Prevention and Control

National Roundtable Testimony: Firefighter Cancer

Edward Kelly, General President, International Association of Fire Fighters

We ask the federal government to establish a comprehensive firefighter cancer strategy that invests in research, provides access to cancer screening for all firefighters, and reduces and ultimately eliminates PFAS exposure.

In 2010, NIOSH found firefighters have excess cancer risk compared to the general population for multiple cancers, including:

  • Testicular.
  • Brain.
  • Prostate.
  • Colon.
  • Mesothelioma.
  • Multiple myeloma.
  • Leukemia.

Recently, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer declared a firefighter's occupational exposure at the highest level, as a “Class 1 threat carcinogenic to humans.” Given that there is no doubt that the higher risk is due to our occupational exposures, what we need now is to further understand the link between these exposures and cancer development.

Some critical research has been done to define the connection between exposures and genetic mutations. That research must continue and expand until we know enough about the causation of cancer in firefighters to change our outcomes. Thus far, what we are learning from the science on this matter is of great concern to our profession.

Second, we need access to health screenings for all firefighters throughout their time as a firefighter and in retirement when the chronic exposures usually manifest. For example, firefighters have a higher risk of lung cancer. Yet, it's often difficult for individual firefighters to get lung screenings due to existing recommendations that do not take into account that our profession is a significant risk factor for cancer. We must direct medical professionals and insurance companies to account for this occupational risk when making coverage decisions. A comprehensive, aggressive screening program will help us find and treat cancer early, when there is a greater likelihood of a positive outcome.

Finally, we need to reduce PFAS exposures. Because of the slow rate in which they degrade, PFAS have been termed “forever chemicals.” None of the over 12,000 types of PFAS have proven to be safe.

PFAS are in some foams we use to put out particularly difficult fires and we urge action to ban the production and use of these foams as they have in European countries. PFAS accumulate in our bodies compound our exposures, and contribute to higher rates of several cancers and other health complications. They can pass in utero and via breastmilk to the children of female firefighters. And PFAS are a driver of higher rates of testicular and prostate cancers in male firefighters.

Most concerning, our bunker is manufactured with PFAS. The very gear we rely on to protect us is making us sick. Next-generation PPE must be developed, evaluated and manufactured as quickly as possible.

Most fire departments cannot afford to replace their bunker gear, and we need to make sure that funding isn't a barrier to replacement. We also need to plan for the safe disposal of our existing gear so we are not spreading PFAS contamination into the environment

Time is of the essence. We must act now. Together we can ensure other families do not experience the pain we have felt.