Inhaling Cancer

By Jim Burneka Jr.

Cancer in the fire service doesn’t seem nearly as much of a taboo topic as it was a few years ago. A number of research studies have been released in the past few years that confirm the long-held suspicion that firefighters do have an increased risk of being diagnosed with cancer. Although many firefighters are now starting to realize the risk, they are often still uncertain about what specific things they can do to decrease their chances of being diagnosed with cancer. Quite simply, to reduce our risk, we must reduce our exposure. Harmful carcinogens are all around us in the fire service, and the identification and mitigation of these exposures are the key to a long career and a healthy retirement.

More than 14 years ago, when I first started as a firefighter, I felt I had to prove myself to the veteran officers. I tried my best to act and do as they did in every way. This often included not wearing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) at car fires and trash fires, and only wearing SCBA during the initial knockdown stages of structural fires. I remember coughing up a lung and having headaches, watery eyes, and “black boogers” in the hours and days following those fires. But, you wouldn’t hear me complain. I was just trying to do my job and prove myself. My story might mirror how it was when many of you first started your fire careers. Then again, perhaps maybe you were (or still are) that smoke breathing veteran.

Up until recent years, many firefighters were still unaware of the looming cancer cloud building on the horizon. It wasn’t until the 2006 Meta-Analysis Study completed by the University of Cincinnati that the problem came to light. Seven years later, with the emergence of multiple scientific studies and the development of groups such as the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, firefighters throughout the country have finally started to truly recognize the threat of cancer. However, often, those same firefighters seem stubbornly reluctant to make the necessary changes to decrease their cancer risk.

The AIDS epidemic became a significant problem for first responders in the late 1980s. The scare brought on immediate, tangible change such as mandatory use of gloves for patient care. When I went through emergency medical services (EMS) training, it was—and still is—an automatic failure criteria for not mentioning blood stream infection before touching the patient. I’ve heard many “back in the day” stories from old-timers about bloody uniforms being a badge of honor; an indicator that you were a skilled and fearless emergency medical technician. This concept seems to parallel what is happing in the fire service regarding cancer.

All of us knows a firefighter who refuses to wash his gear. He seems to take pride in his gear being dirty. He believes that his dirty gear shows that he is a competent and aggressive firefighter. This is often seen as a firefighter’s badge of honor. I can only hope that with this new knowledge regarding the threat of cancer they will change their ways and take the necessary precautions, much like the fire/EMS services changed their ways in the late 1980s.

One of the biggest operational changes that you can implement immediately to decrease your risk of receiving a cancer diagnosis is to change how you do overhaul. There is a misconception that just because the fire is out, you are out of danger. In fact, that is when much of the danger is only beginning. All too often, as soon as the fire is under control, we prematurely drop our packs, hood, and coats to do overhaul. We’ve protected ourselves from the heat and smoke through knockdown, but then knowingly open ourselves up to intense carcinogen exposure as soon as the visible smoke clears.

I realize that the thought of wearing your air pack and full gear throughout the entire duration of the incident doesn’t sound very appealing. SCBA are heavy, especially after the physical challenges of knocking down the fire and putting the scene under control. Paper masks and canisters are less intrusive and may filter some of the airborne particulates, but they fall dangerously short when it comes to carcinogen exposure protection. Overhaul is tough work, plain and simple, and wearing a mask throughout is just draining. Unfortunately, there are no other alternatives currently available that can truly keep you safe from inhaling these cancer-causing products of combustion.

Many of you probably take the time to bring in a four- or five-gas atmospheric monitor before giving the all-clear to begin overhaul. Although these are great tools, the problem is that you are typically only looking at carbon monoxide or hydrogen cyanide levels. These monitors simply don’t take into account all of the harmful carcinogens and chemicals that are present in the modern fire atmosphere, which is filled with synthetic materials and fire retardants. When you look at a list of everything that is floating around in the air after a fire, it’s easy to see that the modern house fire is basically a hazardous material scene. Additionally, combustible materials in older homes pose their own set of dangers. A recently released study from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health shows that firefighters are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma, which often likely resulted from asbestos exposure in older homes.

A common point of contention in the SCBA/overhaul discussion is the increased risk of one of our own having a cardiac issue because of the strain of working while wearing an SCBA for an extended period. However, you need to be smart and have some departmental procedures in place regarding overhaul. After using a bottle, allow that individual to go to rehab to get some fluids and rest before changing out their bottle and going back in for more. By having these “every bottle” breaks, your overall on-scene time may be a little longer than it currently is, but it certainly beats the alternative. Your organization can either accept a slightly longer scene time, or make it a point to keep extra staffing until the end so the work can be split up and crews can still leave the scene in a timely manner.

Firefighting is a dangerous job, and it always will be. You often risk your life multiple times during a work shift. Just getting to the fire scene is a risk in itself. But breathing in carcinogens and chemicals during the overhaul stage of a fire is one risk that we just do not have to take anymore. In no way can you ever be promised a cancer-free life simply by wearing a mask. However, wearing your SCBA throughout the entire overhaul process will take away the single largest carcinogen exposure phase that you encounter in your life as a firefighter.

Many years from now, I’ll finally be able to hang up my boots and retire. I hope to have the opportunity to travel, have some more time to enjoy my hobbies and, most importantly, have time for my family. I don’t want cancer to decrease my quality of life or even perhaps take my life. Wearing my SCBA during overhaul gives me the best chance of realizing those dreams……dreams which I think we all share.

Wear your air pack, make your brothers wear their air packs, and stop inhaling cancer.

For other cancer-decreasing tips and a better understanding of the scope of the cancer problem facing the American fire service, please take a second to read the Firefighter Cancer Support Network’s “White Paper” study at:


Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Peter D. Lawson, U.S. Navy


Jim Burneka Jr. is a firefighter paramedic with the Dayton (OH) Fire Department. Burneka has also served as the Ohio director, vice president of regions, and interim president with the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

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