MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — They’re trained to run into burning buildings and save lives, but Minnesota firefighters are facing a silent danger long after the flames are out.
Studies show more than half of all line-of-duty deaths in firefighting are now caused by cancer. It’s a diagnosis Minnesota firefighters know all too well.
WCCO looked into the heated battle to better protect them.
It always starts small. Inside a staged living room at St. Paul’s Fire Training Center, through five camera views, we see how quickly that changes.
In three minutes, the temperature climbs from 60 to 1,600 degrees before firefighters move in. Synthetic materials in modern furniture mean fires burn faster and hotter than ever before, and new studies show invisible chemicals have firefighters facing serious consequences years later.
As a father of three, Steve Shapira planned to spend his 40s juggling his kids’ homework, sports practices and his busy career.
“You know, I started this job 16-plus years ago, I never thought I’d be this person,” Shapira said.
Even though cancer wasn’t in the genetic cards for this St. Paul firefighter, he is now two rounds into chemotherapy treatment.
“They diagnosed me with non-Hodgkin’s B-cell lymphoma,” Shapira said.
He has no family history of cancer, and Shapira says eating right and exercise have always been priorities.
“I have a hard time figuring out where it could be from other than my occupation,” Shapira said.
From carpets to couches, firefighters come in contact with items laced with flame retardants. They are chemicals that work to delay the start of a fire by a few seconds. They’ve been used for nearly 40 years and only recently have come under fire.
Dr. Susan Shaw, an environmental toxicologist, is the first to measure what flame retardants do to firefighters.
“Cancer today is causing 56 percent of all line-of-duty deaths among firefighters. That is just astronomical,” Shaw said.
She puts firefighters at a 100-percent greater risk for testicular cancer and a 50-percent greater risk for blood cancers.
Shaw found for every five degrees a firefighter’s skin temperature increases, their skin absorption rate increases by 400 times the normal amount. Her research also found chemicals in flame retardants that already pose health problems were 20-times more toxic to them.
“In 30 years of studying chemical exposure in people, the exposure among firefighters is truly one of the worst I’ve ever seen,” Shaw said.
She brought her sobering message to Rochester to present her findings to firefighters from across Minnesota two weeks ago. Once displayed as a badge of honor, she believes soot should be considered dangerous.
“We’re looking at a culture change,” she said.
A St. Louis Park firefighter for 17 years, Eric Curran-Bakken has made changes after his own series of scares.
“I’ve had three skin cancers in the last five years,” Curran-Bakken said. “Now I’m more conscious about making sure that I clean my gear after every fire call. I think that’s really important.”
Curran-Bakken now tells his colleagues to keep their masks and breathing machines on even after the smoke clears.
St. Paul’s fire department, the largest in Minnesota, is leading the charge to make bigger changes. They are backing a bill at the State Capitol that would require manufacturers to report to the government which products contain chemicals of concern.
Chris Parsons is the president of Minnesota’s Professional Fire Fighters. He considers the bill a first step in a profession full of risks.
“What we don’t anticipate is dying with our boots off on a hospital bed, ravaged by cancers that we acquired unnecessarily,” Parsons said.
But similar legislation has been met with resistance all across the country. The North American Flame Retardant Alliance told WCCO it takes firefighters’ concerns seriously and it wants more research. A spokesperson says smoke is dangerous whether flame retardants are there or not. He added that flame retardants stop or slow the spread of fires, so there is less smoke.
Shapira doesn’t think a few extra seconds of lead time in a fire is worth what he’s facing now.
“It’s changed everything,” he said.
While doctors believe they caught his cancer in time, he doesn’t think he’ll fight another fire again – for his family’s sake.
He believes it’s time someone else fought the battle for others just like him.
“They’re out there for the rest of us. We need to be there for them,” Shaw said.
Shapira filed for workers compensation after his cancer diagnosis, which the city of St. Paul then denied. A city spokesperson told WCCO his diagnosis isn’t considered a line-of-duty injury because the public is equally exposed to cancer.
It’s another part of Minnesota law that firefighters want changed.