15 Years After 9/11, New Legislation Aims To Help First Responders Exposed To Deadly Toxins

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Fire fighters dig through rubble at Ground Zero
Fire fighters dig through rubble at Ground Zero

What’s the most dangerous job in the U.S.? Farmers face heavy equipment accidents; construction workers are often a fall away from death; police are at daily risk of getting shot. How about firefighters? After all, racing into burning buildings, where the temperature typically reaches 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, isn’t exactly a day at the beach. On average, 39 firefighters die on-the-job each year, a fatality rate of 4.4 per 100,000 workers, according to the Daily Beast (by contrast, there are 3.3 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers for the average occupation in the U.S.).

But here’s something you may not know about firefighters. The most dangerous part of the job doesn’t involve high temperatures or burning buildings. It comes in the form of toxic mixture of carcinogens and poisonous fumes that are unleashed during the fire. While these brave men and women are fighting to save lives and property, they are also regularly exposed to a witches’ brew of hazardous substances that increase their risk of cancer by 14 percent over the general population, according to a Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study.

“The most dangerous part of the job doesn’t involve high temperatures or burning buildings.”

Need more proof? Simply consider the case of 9/11 first responders, those men and women whose dust- and soot-covered bodies were catapulted into posterity following their heroic efforts in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Hidden among the dust inhaled by these first responders were carcinogenic particles and chemicals: asbestos, fiberglass, mercury, and benzene, among others (300 to 400 tons of asbestos fibers were used to construct the World Trade Center alone, according to Natural Resources Defense Council estimates). In 2002, pulmonary disease specialist Dr. David Prezant of the New York City Fire Department coined the term “World Trade Center cough” after a number of 9/11 firefighters developed chronic respiratory illnesses. As of 2014, there were more than 2,500 reported cancer cases among World Trade Center rescuers and responders. These cancers span the disease gamut -- esophageal cancer, lung cancer, mesothelioma, thyroid, prostate, lung, pancreatic, leukemia, and multiple myeloma. That same year, the Victim Compensation Fund awarded $50.5 million to 115 cancer claimants. “Only 17 of the claimants were downtown New Yorkers, and five were visitors at the time of the attacks,” reported citylab.com.

So while we know there is a link here, that’s about all we know. But that could soon change. Last February, the federal government introduced legislation to establish a National Firefighter Cancer Registry that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could use to track the types of cancers contracted by both volunteer and professional firefighters. The goal is to quantify and study the data to better understand the risks and come up with better methods of prevention.

Some studies have already been done on a regional or state level. For example, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) tracked 30,000 career firefighters in Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, finding higher rates of many types of cancer among them. A separate California-only study -- the state has the country’s largest cancer registry -- found firefighters at increased risk for several major cancers, including melanoma, acute myeloid leukemia, multiple myeloma, and cancers of the esophagus, prostate, brain, and kidney brain, bladder and testis. Interestingly, the same study noted that black and Hispanic firefighters were at increased for developing more types of cancer than white firefighters, though the researchers could offer no clear explanation for this phenomenon.

Though these studies are clearly a good start, we need to track these numbers on a national level to obtain more comprehensive information. What’s worth exploring is why today’s homes and office buildings are so toxic. Just a century ago, home and offices were built and furnished with natural materials: wood, stone, metal, and glass. Within the last 40 years, builders have turned to pressed wood products and engineered thermoplastics such as polyvinylidene fluoride, which, not surprisingly, release carcinogens when burned. The plastic found in home appliances, furniture, and electronics also releases carcinogens, some of which are the most carcinogenic chemicals known, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and various dioxins. Moderate amounts of cyanide, which trigger a drop in oxygen levels, leading to confusion and poor judgement, are also released. Synthetic materials such as those used in couches and in carpeting create more smoke than organic materials. Flame retardants, which ironically are supposed to make your house -- and office -- safer from fires, double the amount of smoke and increase toxic gasses 10-fold. The bad news doesn’t end here. Benzene, a chemical found in furniture wax, formaldehyde, which is used in cabinets and cleaning materials, and hydrogen cyanide, a product found in synthetic fibers, all release toxic fumes when burned.

While all of that should give the average homeowner or office worker reason to pause, consider the plight of the firefighter. Not only are they regularly exposed, but the extreme heat makes it easier for chemicals to enter skin: With every 5 degrees that body temperature rises, skin absorption rates increase by as much 400%.

Protective gear helps, to a point. However, smoke can still enter up the jacket and through gaps in sleeves and necklines. When firefighters breathe supplemental oxygen, their exposure is somewhat limited, but they often don’t wear the masks because they are so cumbersome. And firefighter gear itself soaks up toxins via “off-gassing” (known also as out-gassing and the release of volatile organic compounds [VOCs] from household products), which are dispersed in the firehouse and to other firefighters. Ideally, gear should be cleaned after each exposure; in reality, it is more like once a year. We can certainly do better.

Studies of cancers and other illness in 9/11 first responders have now been definitively linked to a number of Ground Zero toxins, including benzene and dioxin. Firefighters are routinely exposed to these and similar types of poisons every day, throughout their careers. The proposed legislation is an important step in showing the connection between toxins and human health. It’s the least we can do to protect those who protect us.