CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Firefighters risk it all to save people on a daily basis, but the toxic fumes and dangerous materials they face every day are also putting their health in jeopardy.
Firefighters are 14 percent more likely to die from cancer than the general public.
The Charlotte Fire Department had a major wake-up call in 2016 when three of their own died from cancer.
The department is now focused on breaking the deadly cycle and is taking steps to prevent exposure to cancer-causing materials.
One thing that can be a danger to firefighters are the fire safety suits that protect them when they go into burning homes.
Charlotte Fire Capt. Jackie Gilmore showed Channel 9 the steps firefighters take to wear wash and remove protective gear. When firefighters leave a scene they're covered in toxins so strong they can seep through their gear into their skin.
The dangers they face were thrust in the spotlight when the department lost Battalion Chief Barbara Beam, firefighter Seth Tinsley and firefighter Jeff McGill to cancer in 2016.
(Barbara Beam, Seth Tinsley, Jeff McGill)
"We're not supposed to get hurt, we can do it all, but to have the firefighters going through cancer. It does make you think," Gilmore said.
Their deaths made Battalion Chief Cindy Bonham do more research on what more could be done to protect our protectors.
"It's hard. It seems unfair knowing it could be from what we do," Bonham said.
Bonham started the department's Cancer Task Force. Now when firefighters leave a scene they wash their gear immediately and shower at the station to remove extra contaminants.
A grant helped CFD purchase a second set of gear for everyone and now firefighters send toxic clothes to logistics for a thorough cleaning.
CFD also partners with Levine Cancer Institute for free screenings.
Department data shows that from April of 2014 to March 2017, 41 Charlotte firefighters were diagnosed with cancer and 25 with skin cancer.
Charlotte Fire Department Cancer Claims from April 2014-March 2017:
- Skin: 25
- Prostate: 4
- Bladder/Kidney: 4
- Disorder of the Blood: 2
- CNS: 2
- Leukemia: 1
- Eye (external): 1
- Lung/Bronchial: 1
- Stomach/Esophogeal: 1
- Small Intestine/Abdonminal: 1
- Anal/Rectal: 1
- Skin- minor: 1
- Head and Neck: 1
- Total: 41
"It won't surprise me if I maybe get cancer, but it's not a death sentence," Bonham said.
She said it's not enough to scare them away from their jobs.
"We still love what we do," Bonham said.
Bonham is hoping through education they can prevent and detect cancer earlier to save themselves while saving others.
Charlotte Fire is partnering with Levine for cancer screenings and hoping to conduct research that will help save firefighters lives.
The department is taking part in a national movement to spread awareness of the cancer risks among firefighters.
The department also trying to reach out to retirees.
Some states have what are called "presumptive laws" that give benefits to firefighters diagnosed with cancer. North Carolina does not have any such laws on the books according to the International Association of Firefighters.
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