COLERAIN TWP, Ohio -- When firefighters wade into burning buildings, they face more than the immediate risk of being seared by flames or injured by part of a collapsing structure -- they also expose themselves to invisible dangers that can take years to make themselves known.
Studies show that battling flames, smoke and soot every day can eventually wreak havoc on a firefighter’s health and increase the risk of developing cancer; researchers say that firefighters face the greatest risk of developing cancers related to the digestive, oral, urinary and respiratory systems.
"The majority of these cancers can be caused by the chemical mix that they’re exposed to in the air at the fire scene," said Erin Haynes, an environmental health professor at UC. "And then when they go back and put the fire out."
That’s why the Colerain Township Fire Department takes special measures to reduce the risk of exposure to cancer-causing contaminants for its firefighters.
"Over the course of my 32 years, I’ve seen a number of personal friends and colleagues who have been stricken with this disease," said Colerain Township Fire Chief Frank Cook.
In Cook’s fire department, firefighters leave their protective gear on even after visible signs of a fire have disippated, since carcinogens and other harmful substances can linger in the air. They also clean their equipment once at the scene to rinse away a preliminary layer of contamination.
"We soap ourselves down, rinse ourselves off in order to get the gross contamination off," Cook said.
But there’s far more to be done once they’ve left the site of a fire.
Items like hoods and gloves pose the greatest risk to firefighters’ health because they come into direct contact with the wearer’s skin. According to Cook, those items should be removed almost immediately after leaving a fire scene.
The Colerain Fire Department has a special machine that then cleans and sterilizes all fire equipment between jobs so that damaging particles don’t linger on clothing or filter into the air once that equipment is stored in the fire station. Maintaining the cleanliness of the station itself is integral to ensuring the health of the people who work there.
"We want to make sure that we don’t bring contaminants into the living quarters," Cook said. "I mean, this is our secondary home, so you want to make sure that you do everything you can to minimize that exposure."
Other local fire departments, including Cincinnati and Goshen, are also considering a similar decontamination process to protect their teams.