Sen. Klobuchar backs National Firefighter Cancer Registry

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Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is backing legislation that would create a national firefighter cancer registry.   

Exposure to carcinogenic soot, from plastics, asbestos, and fire-retardant chemicals, are suspected of causing cancer in firefighters. The fine soot seeps underneath firefighters' turnout gear or is caught on exposed areas of the body, then soaks into the skin.  

There are 20-thousand firefighters in Minnesota and it's estimated 60% will develop cancer. 

"Do the math, according to the statistics, 14,000 to 15,000 of them will develop cancer.  That is just scary," said Elk River Fire Department Chief, John Cunningham.  

But, Klobuchar said more is needed than guess work and estimates. A national registry would track firefighter cancers nationwide. The data collected would also be used to help with prevention efforts used to minimize the risks.

Klobuchar believes the idea has broad bipartisan support, and would cost only $2.5 million. 

"In fact, only 11 states have a cancer registry in place and without that hard data, firefighters and their families are paying the price," Klobuchar said.

Firefighters like Steve Shapira, who was with the St. Paul Fire Department for 17 years until he developed non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.  But, the city won't recognize his workers comp claim. 

"I'm over five figures in debt because of my cancer therapy," Shapira said.

There's also a bill in the Minnesota Legislature that would establish a state-wide registry.  It would work in concert with a national registry.

FOX 9 INVESTIGATORS: The invisible danger firefighters face


Minnesota is one of 33 states that recognizes various cancers as an occupational hazard, but there is no statewide registry to effectively track the number of Minnesota firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer. In the Minnesota Legislature, Rep. Peggy Bennett (R-Albert Lea) introduced a bill last week to create statewide firefighter cancer registry. Three firefighters from her community were recently diagnosed with cancer within about a year.

"I look at our firefighters as our heroes," said Bennett. "They do a good service. I'd like to do a good service back for them."

Bennett's proposal calls for the health department to keep firefighters anonymous in the registry.

"Lots of researchers are interested in getting the data," she said.


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.