CASTLE ROCK, Colo. — It is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. There is simply no way around it.
From sudden cardiac events, to burning buildings filled with fire and smoke, dozens of firefighters pass away on the job every year.
But new studies are revealing a concerning trend among our nation’s heroes: skyrocketing cancer rates.
It was February 2, 2017 when South Metro Firefighter Tony Palato went in for a routine colonoscopy.
“The doctor came to our room and was ghost white,” says Palato. “And he said ‘this is really bad.'”
Doctors had discovered a 10 centimeter tumor inside Palato’s colon. “He said there’s a really big tumor, and I looked at my wife and said ‘I’m going to die,'” recounts Palato.
It’s a story that’s becoming more common among American firefighters, as years of exposure to modern building materials begin to catch up.
Today’s homes are filled with plastics and asbestos, which produce dangerous carcinogens and toxins when burned. The dramatic impact of these toxins has only recently been discovered.
“When I went through the academy, we would burn anything and everything,” says South Metro Batallion Chief Mike Mullane. “A sofa, tires, roof shingles, we’d even pull a car into the burn building. We were just exposing ourselves to all of those synthetics.”
6 years ago, Mullane was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. “Most of mine are around my face and neck area, and that’s where our hood is,” he says.
In total, nine South Metro Firefighters are currently fighting some form of cancer.
“To realize that this was related to the job that we’re doing, and this is a reality for any of us, it’s tough,” he says.
In addition to breathing those toxins in while on calls, scientists are learning more about the impacts of those carcinogens on skin.
Mullane says firefighters used to wear dirty gear back to the station, to show peers they had received some action. “It was a badge of honor to have dirty, sooty gear,” he says. “That’s how you showed people you had experience, and that you knew what you were doing.”
Scientists now believe those actions are a contributing factor to an increase in cancer diagnoses among firefighters, and an increase in deaths.
According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, nearly two out of every three firefighters who died in the line of duty since 2002 died of some form of cancer. According to OSHA, firefighters are 9% more likely than the average person to get cancer, and 14% more likely to die from it.
4 Aurora Firefighters, 12 Denver Firefighters, 14 West Metro Firefighters, and 7 North Metro Firefighters are also fighting cancer.
Outside South Metro’s headquarters, a memorial wall lists the names of firefighters who passed away in the line of duty.
The most recent addition is Mike Freeman, who passed away following a cancer diagnoses in 2018.
“I was at home and I received a call from his best friend, and he told me my dad had been admitted to the hospital,” says Mike’s daughter Aimee Dunn. “He had been admitted for confusion, and I thought wow, that really doesn’t sound like my dad.”
Doctors found a tumor wrapping around his frontal lobe. “They took an MRI and said things are looking really bad here,” says Dunn.
Freeman passed away less than 2 months later. Doctors believe his cancer was a direct result from his 43-year career as a firefighter.
“My 3 year old plays with a fire truck, and he says I want to be a firefighter,” she says. “and the first thing that comes to my mind is how can I protect you?”
What’s being done
South Metro has taken a proactive stance in turning those statistics around, pumping thousands of dollars into cancer prevention. Every firefighter now carries two sets of bunker gear. That gear is immediately hosed off following any contact with fire or smoke, and stored in a separate compartment of the fire engine.
“It’s just a big deal to keep all of those toxins and carcinogens off your gear,” says Mullane.
During training, firefighters now burn wood, grass, and other natural materials, instead of plastics and toxic materials.
“In my fire academy, I never washed my bunker gear,” says South Metro Captain Brad Lingle. “That’s a mandated thing now.”
Lingle has been diagnosed with 12 separate instances of basal cell carcinoma, the majority around the unprotected area of his head, face, and neck.
“Some of us have a course of action that’s already set, and while it may be too late for some of us, we’re absolutely doing this for the future generations.”
South Metro also has a full wellness program, which helps firefighters like Palato get back in shape for work.
Palato is now in remission, and decided to continue working the front lines. “I did everything I could to get back here to be a part of this,” he says. “I live for today now. I used to be a worrier, but this put a lot of perspective in my life.”