A Different Kind of Fire: Rising Cases of Cancer Among Firefighters

November 20, 2016 11:53 PM

(ABC 6 News) -- In an ABC 6 News exclusive, ABC 6 News Anchor Laura Lee highlights the plight of firefighters from our area who have been battling cancer.

They respond to our calls every day to keep us safe. Now, they are fighting a different kind of fire.


The number of cases of firefighters being diagnosed with cancer is increasing across the country.

Members of the Albert Lea Fire Department spoke with ABC 6 News as they open up about their battles with cancer and what new changes are being made statewide to keep them safe.

On Interstate 35, along the Minnesota-Iowa border, sits the land between two lakes. Enjoying the view of Fountain Lake is 32-year-old Brett Boss. A sight Boss said he will never take for granted as he reports to work, "Every day is different when it comes to work so you never know when that pager goes off, what it is." 

Just this week, Boss, a 12-veteran with the Albert Lea Fire Department responded to a gas leak. From leaks to fires, car accidents to water rescues, you name it, they show up, "You're always there to help people at a moments notice." 

But in December 2014, Boss responded to a call he never expected, "Your whole life just turns instantly, you just gotta do what you have to to survive." 

He was diagnosed with Stage Four Ewing Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, "As soon as he left the room, that's when it really sunk in that the next year or two or however long it was going to take , it was going to be a tough battle ahead."

Surgery was not an option because the cancer was too close to his spine. Instead, he received 14 rounds of painful chemo and months of radiation, "Some days were very tough, I came to work and just doing little things, I was very tired, walking up the stairs I was very tired." 

As cancer continues to prove even our strongest heroes are not immune to it. In fact, in the just the last 18 months, the three firefighters from Albert Lea have been diagnosed.

Deputy Chief Jeff Laskowske is the most recent firefighter to be diagnosed with testicular cancer, "It was to the point where my back was hurting that I couldn't lay down, couldn't stand up, and I couldn't bend, I couldn't move."

Before him, Doug Johnson, with brain cancer, "One of those things where we didn't want our brothers to have to go through this again."

So is there a link? Are firefighters more at risk to develop cancer? We took our questions straight to the top.

We were shocked at what we found out, they don't document caner cases among firefighters. However, they did say this: "This is one group, though, where we're fairly comfortable saying there probably is a link between their profession and a higher risk of developing cancer, even if we can't pinpoint the exact causes."

Chris Parson is the president of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters. He is also captain with the St. Paul Fire Department, "There is a rising rate of cancer among fire fighters." 

He says more and more firefighters are dying with their boots off in a hospital bed than in the line of duty, "Fires are more dangerous, they burn faster, they burn hotter, they put more toxins into the air and fire fighters are exposed, that's where we do our business."

According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, since 2002, 60 percent of active firefighter deaths have been due to cancer.

In Austin, two firefighters have also been diagnosed with cancer in the past few years. Including Riverland Community College fire coordinator, Brian Staska. Just this summer, Staska received the first cancer "tool box" to be given in Minnesota by the Firefighter Cancer Support Network based out of California, "You know you never thought in a million years you'd be the one needing those prayers and now I openly say hey I'll take all the prayers I can get."

 Parsons is currently working with state lawmakers to create a state registry to document cases and the types of cancer. 

In a recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters show a higher rate of certain types of cancer. Mostly digestive, respiratory, urinary cancers, "We go into buildings and we don't know what is in there and so we're searching for the fire because theres a lot to do when the fire is out, we go into the walls and into the ceilings, we enhale, absestos fibers... fires are burning hotter because our homes furnishings are made of synthetic materials."

By implementing new preventative measures at their station beefore and after fire calls, things like shower within the hour. All firefighters are now required to shower the moment they return from a fire.  Other proactive approaches include washing gear in extractors, essentially powerful washing machines.

The men from Albert Lea say they have their families and community to thank for the support they've received over the past year.


Laura Lee

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