BURKE COUNTY, N.C. - A 28-year-old volunteer firefighter lost his battle with cancer and those closest to him believe it was caused by hazardous conditions while on the job.
Chris Banks Jr. worked with the Drowning Creek Volunteer Fire Department in Burke County. He died this week leaving behind his wife and two young children.
He responded to every major call and was likely exposed to dangerous toxins over the years.
Banks' wife told reporter Dave Faherty Thursday her husband still wanted to respond to fires during his fight with the deadly disease.
Just about everyone Faherty spoke with in the area knew Banks.
Firefighters collected Banks’ firefighting gear Thursday and lowered the flag to half-staff in his honor.
The chief recalled Banks’ dedication as a firefighter.
“Boy was dedicated,” Chief Wyatt Spencer said. “He had a heart to help anybody he could help.”
Banks was one of many firefighters who responded to the inferno at the historic Hildebran schoolhouse in March 2016.
He was treated twice for smoke inhalation that day.
"Chris went to every call he could possibly go to,” firefighter Ricky Conger said. “When that tone went off, he was ready to go.”
Megan Banks said her husband was diagnosed 2 ½ years ago and it was serious -- a cancer in the tissue behind his nasal passages.
“Nasopharyongeal carcinoma,” Megan Banks said. “He was stage 3 when they found it. The PET scan, they said it had spread to his bones and to his bloodstream.”
Nasopharyngeal cancer is a rare type of head and neck cancer, according to WebMD.
Firefighters at Drowning Creek, along with family members, wondered if Chris Banks’ passion for firefighting had any connection to cancer.
“It’s definitely something I want to know, but I think it definitely could have played a big factor,” Megan Banks said. “I think it could have came from inhaling the smoke.”
Chris Banks’ fellow firefighters organized a procession to the cemetery after visitation on Saturday. Studies have found that firefighters are 14 percent more likely to develop cancer compared with the average person.
Firefighters are aware of the dangers and take precautions every time they run a call.
“We breath all these chemicals, household goods, plastics, asbestos in some of these old houses,” Spencer said.
Some larger fire departments have started extra cleaning processes to try to get toxins off firefighters’ uniforms.
The Drowning Creek Volunteer Fire Department recently got an Assistance to Firefighters grant for a washer and dryer. The firefighters also have bags to put their gear in after a fire and return to the department to wash.
Reporter Brittney Johnson has investigated the increased cancer risk for firefighters for years now.
There's an effort to make sure firefighters, who do get sick, get the support they need.
A bill going through the North Carolina Senate would designate cancer an on-the-job injury for firefighters.
If the bill passes, firefighters would they get the health care benefits they need, which is already in effect in most U.S. states.
A national firefighters union honored firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2017.
The union added 271 names to the wall -- 211 of those firefighters died of cancer.
The Levine Cancer Institute is trying to figure out exactly why so many firefighters are getting cancer.
Firefighters think it is because of the chemicals that burn when houses catch fire.
Homes used to be built with wood and natural products, but now more plastics and chemicals are in furniture, flooring and more.
The Charlotte Fire Department created new rules for cleaning gear to make sure all the toxins get washed off.
It is a crisis across the nation.
Last summer, President Donald Trump signed a law requiring the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to create a registry of firefighters' cancer cases.
The CDC will use it to track links between cancer and what the firefighters are exposed to while working.
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