Chemicals in the Air: Boston Firefighters are Battling Cancer Along with Fires

“As it turns out, the greatest risk of being a firefighter in Boston isn’t burning to death or even breaking an ankle — it’s cancer.” — Boston Magazine

While there are few jobs riskier than firefighting, an increased risk of developing cancer was not something Boston firefighters were expecting when they signed up for the job. However, firefighters are increasingly being diagnosed with cancers such as lymphoma, leukemia, and myeloma.

The March 2017 issue of Boston Magazine calls attention to the large volume of household goods containing plastics, electronics, and flame-retardant containing furniture. When these products are burned, they create toxic fumes that can be inhaled by rescue teams. While it is not possible to measure the amount every firefighter inhales, the research is clear that exposures on the job mean firefighters are at greater risk of developing cancer.

Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn explained, “…the smoke firefighters are exposed to is often loaded with a litany of septic chemicals — formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, chlorophenols, dioxins, trichloroethylene, ethylene oxide, polychlorinated biphenyls, methylene chloride, orthotoluidine, and arsenic, to name a few. Alone, any one of these may be harmful; mixed together they could make a potent cocktail of carcinogens with the capacity to do untold damage to the body’s organs, cells, and DNA.”

It is ironic that flame retardants, intended to reduce fires, could be contributing to harm. Worse yet, are clear limitations to the effectiveness of flame retardants in preventing or minimizing the severity of fires. “They become ineffective at high temperatures, and when they go up in smoke they can take on the form of carcinogenic particles that are easy to inhale and capable of seeping through skin and into the bloodstream,” the article states.

A change in flammability standards nationally has meant some cities can change their flammability code to allow it to be met without the use of toxic flame retardants. Two years after Massachusetts, Boston passed an ordinance allowing the city to adhere to the new statewide fire prevention code, which allows public buildings with a fire suppression system, such as hospitals, to use flame retardant-free furniture and lessen the chemical load throughout the city. Sustainability leaders from Partners HealthCare were a part of this movement, testifying in front of the Boston City Council in support of these changes.

[Source: Boston Magazine]