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NC Firefighters Tackle High Cancer Rates Through Prevention And Politics

Photo: Firefighter turnout gear
Vince Alongi

In North Carolina, firefighters are taking steps to address high cancer rates among their ranks.


Firefighters are more likely to be diagnosed with and die of cancer than the general public, according to a 2015 study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The two-fold approach to tackling rising cancer rates starts with changing the culture around decontaminating equipment.

Travis McGaha, assistant fire marshal for Concord Fire Department and a board member of the North Carolina Firefighter Cancer Alliance, says in the past, dirty gear was seen as a sign of hard work, a badge of courage among firefighters.

“We’re finding those very same things, the soot, the carbon, all the things that make our gear dirty are actually what’s giving us the exposures to carcinogens,” said McGaha. “So now we’re beginning to see that culture change from ‘Oh man, look how dirty my gear is,’ to ‘All right, I’m keeping it clean. I went to a fire, I washed it yesterday, so now I’m cool.’”

His organization helps distribute decontamination buckets full of low-tech tools firefighters can use to clean up.

“When we talk about the gear and equipment needed to clean, it’s soap, brushes, baby wipes, trash bags – very basic things that don’t cost a lot of money that actually may already be lying around the fire house,” he said.

Political spark

While some work to change attitudes at the fire station, others are pushing for change at the N.C. General Assembly.

Rep. Brian Turner (D-Buncombe), is one of several legislators sponsoring a presumptive cancer bill this session. Under the proposed law, nine types of cancer that federal studies have linked to firefighting would be presumed to be work-related, and firefighters diagnosed with those cancers would be eligible for workers’ compensation during treatment.

“If you are sick, and you are sick because of work that you do, you shouldn’t be forced to have to work to retain your coverage and your benefits through your disease,” said Turner.

A similar bill was filed in the House in 2015, but died in committee despite bipartisan support.

The North Carolina League of Municipalities spoke against that 2015 bill, saying it would drive up insurance costs for cities and towns that employ firefighters. League spokesperson Scott Mooneyham declined to comment on the specifics of the 2019 presumptive cancer legislation as the bill has not yet been filed.

Rep. Turner says he’d like to see municipalities reassess their stance.

“I think that cities need to look at what is right to do for these folks and not so much what is convenient,” he said.

Only seven states lack presumptive cancer legislation, said Tom Brewer, president of the Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics of North Carolina, a group that lobbies on behalf of first responders. He noted the proposed bill goes hand in hand with efforts to reduce on-the-job exposure to carcinogens.

“We’re not just asking for presumptive legislation,” he said.  “We’re also taking steps to hopefully one day eliminate or eradicate this disease that is killing our members.”

The North Carolina Firefighters Cancer Alliance offers peer counseling and support for firefighters and family members facing a cancer diagnosis.

Elizabeth Friend grew up in North Carolina listening to public radio in the backseat of the family station wagon. She has been reporting and producing at WUNC since 2016, covering everything from Army history to armadillos. She's also the co-founder of the beloved summer event series Audio Under The Stars. In her spare time she enjoys exploring the outside world with her family, dabbling in esoteric crafts, and cheese.
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