INVISIBLE DANGER: Firefighters and cancer

A Fox 9 investigation finds some Minnesota firefighters are not being educated or trained on how to prevent cancer risks while on the job, even though a large percentage of firefighters want more help in cutting the risks of getting the disease.

Cancer has become the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths for firefighters. Sixty percent will die from cancer compared with 20 percent of the general public, according to the International Association of Firefighters.

Fire has changed. It was once primordial, with homes made of wood, glass, and metal. They are now loaded with burning plastics, electronics and flame retardants, a toxic soup of known carcinogens, leaving behind black soot that sticks to firefighters like tar.


Like most firefighters, Steve Shapira, took a measure of pride in the grime. The 17-year veteran of the St. Paul Fire Department was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, three years ago.

"I got four calls in one day of firefighters with cancers in St. Paul; skin cancer, oral cancer, there was a testicular cancer,” he said. "We are like a toxic sponge when we got into some of these fire situations."

"Our firefighters take an oath, ‘look I'll sacrifice myself to save someone if I have to’, but they're sacrificing themselves every day by going into these toxic environments,” said St. Paul Fire Chief, Tim Butler.

In Albert Lea, the department of 16 full-time firefighters had three men developed cancer within about a year.

Brett Boss, a marathon runner, was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer at 31. Another member of the team was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

Arson investigator, Doug Johnson, was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and he died in October at the age of 51. 

"Even if he would've known it would've increased their risk of cancer, he still would've fought fires and did what they did. And I think most firefighters would too. It's just in their blood," said his wife, Evon.

According to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, firefighters are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer (102 percent).

There's also a greater risk of; multiple myeloma (53 percent), non-Hodgkin lymphoma (51 percent), skin (39 percent), brain cancer (32 percent), prostate (28 percent), stomach (22 percent) and colon cancer (21 percent).


Minnesota is one of 33 states that recognizes the cancers as occupational hazards of being a firefighter. 

Shapira had two doctors who said his cancer was job-related, but the city still denied his workers' comp claim.

"When I asked them, they said I had an equal chance of developing cancer as anyone in St. Paul," Shapira recalled.

He believes someone in risk management made that decision.

The Fox 9 Investigators learned that in St. Paul 10 firefighters have filed cancer claims, but the city couldn't tell Fox 9 whether any of them had been accepted.

According to Minnesota’s workers compensation system, in the last decade, only one firefighter in Minnesota had their cancer accepted as an occupational injury. Privacy laws prevent Fox 9 from knowing which city the claim originated in.

The problem becomes establishing a definitive link between exposure and cancer.

"It makes sense; these are guys who are potentially exposed to any kind of chemical or compound you can think of.  And it is also on fire," said Dr. Zeke McKinney who is an occupational and environmental medicine specialist at HealthPartners.


While a firefighter's "turnout gear" is effective against heat, a study commissioned by the International Association of Firefighters demonstrated how particles of soot can seep into the gaps around the face, neck, hands and legs.

Underneath 25 pounds of gear, firefighters become human sponges. With every five-degree rise in skin temperature, absorption goes up by 400 percent.  

Dr. Susan Shaw, who is an environmental health scientist with Marine & Environmental Research Institute, took blood samples from a dozen firefighters within 24 hours of a blaze in California.  She found their blood had three times the level of fire retardant chemicals.

"When you compare the levels firefighters have after a large scale response to the levels of the general population they are hundreds of times higher,” she said.


State Fire Marshal, Bruce West said after every fire turnout gear should be cleaned in a specialized washing machine, known as an extractor.  But the machines are expensive, at least $10,000 each. 

St. Paul fire departments now has extractors in all their fire stations. Minneapolis has extractors in about half of their stations and will have them in all stations by the end of the year.

But West worries about smaller departments.  

Of the 20,000 firefighters in Minnesota, 18,000 are volunteer or part-time.

"A firefighter in east overshoot Minnesota, who's going to go home to their family, you don't want them to take that home to the family," said West.

Montrose is one of those all-volunteer departments, but it received an extractor in January thanks to the help of a state grant through the Fire Marshal’s office.     

"We are upwards of two times more susceptible to getting cancer than the general public. Having a gear washer extractor we can knock those numbers down. That's a win for us,” said Chief Kevin Triplett.

The State Fire Marshal’s office has given out 28 grants in 2016. This year 39 departments are scheduled to receive one.


With the help of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, the Fox 9 Investigators sent out a survey to the state’s more than 700 fire department chiefs to get a better idea on the cancer numbers and find out how many departments know this is a problem.

Out of more than 100 responses, 1 in 5 departments told us they had at least one firefighter diagnosed with cancer, 1 in 10 had multiple cases. Lung cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma were the most common.

The results reveal 27 percent of chiefs have not taken any education or prevention measures with their departments. Four percent of those said they were not even aware of the increased risk of cancer for firefighters.  

 - 26 percent of departments do not have an extractor. 
 - 87 percent of departments do not have a second set of gear for each firefighter.
 - 68 percent of departments do not have spare hoods for each firefighter. 
 - 80 percent of chiefs do not believe they're getting enough education and support from the state and federal government.


No one in the state has tracked how many firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer. Lawmakers hope to pass a bill this session to create a state-wide registry.

Lawmakers are also working to change the law and shift the burden of proof requiring cities to disprove that cancer is job-related.