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A Moment of Science

Fighting Fires, Fighting Cancer

Firefighters expose themselves to dangerous chemicals and heat while they do their job.

Fire fighters are some of the bravest folks you’ll ever meet.

A burning, collapsing building sends most people scurrying away, but they rush right into the searing heat and danger.

Fire fighters pay a high price, though, and it’s not just getting burned and inhaling smoke.

According to a study led by University of Cincinnati professor Grace LeMasters, firefighters face higher than normal risks for several types of cancer. Testicular cancer is the biggest problem. Fire fighters are more than twice as likely as other people to get it. Bone marrow cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and prostate cancer are also more likely to affect fire fighters than others.

Why fire fighters are at such risk is not hard to understand. The inside of a burning building can be a swirl of toxic gases, fumes, heavy metals, and asbestos. All of these substances, alone and together, can cause cancer. Even living in the firehouse may pose dangers. Without proper ventilation, the diesel fumes from idling fire trucks can be dangerous.

Fire fighters are already equipped with sophisticated protective gear, including protective jackets, pants, boots, and ventilators. According to the study, though, this equipment doesn’t do enough to stop cancer-causing chemicals from coming into contact with fire fighter’s skin. That would require redesigned equipment made of advanced materials light enough to allow fire fighters to do their job but strong enough to keep out the chemicals.

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