DRACUT — Chief Richard Patterson and the Dracut Fire Department would like to inform the community that the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the Firefighter Cancer Support Network have designated January as Fire Fighter Cancer Awareness Month.
Cancer among firefighters is the number one cause of line-of-duty death in the fire services. Firefighters are regularly exposed to carcinogens and other chemicals in smoke and on their gear.
Cancer caused 66 percent of the career firefighter line-of-duty deaths from 2002 to 2019, according to the IAFF, and in 2022 over 75 percent of the firefighters whose names were added to the IAFF Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial died of occupational cancer.
The Dracut Fire Department offers year-round training and makes continuous efforts to help prevent cancer in firefighters. Firefighters are encouraged to initially decontaminate at fire scenes, and to more thoroughly wash their gear whenever they return from a fire. Each of the town’s three fire stations are now equipped with gear- washing equipment, and firefighters are encouraged to wash all their gear at the fire station instead of taking it home, where their families also could be exposed to contamination.
The department has also invested in an ongoing project to replace all firefighter turnout gear with gear that is free from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe since the 1940s for stain-resistant, water-resistant, and fire-resistant products, including firefighter gear.
Prolonged exposure to PFAS chemicals can cause a number of adverse health effects, including cancers, liver, blood, thyroid, fetal development, and immune systems issues.
More than half of the Dracut Fire Department’s 86 sets of turnout gear now have PFAS- free outer layers, and the department is replacing at least eight sets of gear per year in an effort to eliminate all gear containing PFAS. The inner layers of firefighter gear are still not available without PFAS, though new materials for that gear are in the works.
“Our staff is the most important resource that we have,” said Chief Patterson. “My job as a chief is to do everything I can to keep them safe, and part of that is making sure we provide them with the tools to decontaminate themselves, clean their gear, keep the contamination here and away from their family members, and to keep themselves safe by limiting their exposure to dangerous chemicals as much as possible.”
Community members interested in learning more about cancer in the fire services may visit the Firefighter Cancer Support Network here.