When William Duesler joined Tamarac Fire Rescue 14 years ago, experienced firefighters used to hang scorched helmets on the wall with pride. They didn't know that this might be killing them.
“When I first got on, the more you smelled like soot and smoke, the more work it meant you were doing,” the lieutenant said. “Now, it’s no longer a badge of honor to be dirty.”
For the past two years, a team of researchers at the University of Miami has studied over 1,800 firefighters in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to better understand what causes the unusually high rate of cancer among first responders — and how to fix it. Their results are changing health standards for firefighters in Florida and across the nation.
On Friday, scientists at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at UM’s Miller School of Medicine gathered in front of more than 75 first responders, scientists and public officials to discuss the ongoing research.
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One recent study by an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that firefighters face significantly higher rates of certain cancers, including deadly mesothelioma, which was twice as common among firefighters. More fire runs were linked to higher cancer rates.
“I’m sure that some of the discoveries we make in the firefighter community are going to help others, and help understand why anyone gets cancer,” said Dr. Stephen Nimer, the cancer center’s director.
The study, which has received more than $3.5 million from the state, collects data from surveys, blood samples, gear swabs, air samples and personal reporting to measure and track exposure levels to harmful chemicals.
The lead researcher of the study, Dr. Erin Kobetz, said one of the project’s key innovations is using wearable technology and apps to track information that hasn’t been studied in the past. The data, gathered automatically and with input from the firefighters, include information on the size and chemical content of the blaze. The results are being used to build comprehensive medical history profiles that will link exposure levels of different carcinogens to types and rates of cancers.
The research has an impact far beyond Florida, as the International Association of Fire Fighters has begun introducing the app into firehouses across America and Canada to build a national register of exposure levels.
“This project touches every area of the state and has a very human value, in terms of the lives saved,” said state Rep. Jeanette Nunez, who was honored at the event for her legislative work supporting the study. “You’re dealing with life and death here. We owe it to our first responders.”
As part of the study, researchers are working with firefighters to find ways to improve policies and protocols at fire stations. “Everything we’ve done has been guided by the firefighters,” said Kobetz. “It’s very much inspired by what they are already doing, and we translate their ideas into scientific opportunity.”
Chief Samuel Eaton of Miami-Dade’s Fire Rescue credited the team at Sylvester with helping change firehouse behavior. Activities that used to be normal, he said, like throwing dirty gear into the front of a truck or not showering immediately after returning from a fire are becoming increasingly rare. “We know now that smudge and dirt is a vehicle for those carcinogens to get into your system,” he said.
Keith Tyson, Florida director of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, was six months into his retirement when he was diagnosed. At the time, he had no idea it might be connected with his 34 years as a Miami-Dade county firefighter and paramedic. Then he started calling other firefighters.
“The more phone calls I made, the more alarmed I became,” he said. “There was a lot of cancer in the fire department and we didn’t know it.”
That was nearly a decade ago. Since then, Tyson has been working to increase awareness of the health risks firefighters face. He hopes the data from this study can be used to convince medical insurers and the state to fund preventative measures, like improving exhaust systems in firehouses and providing extra sets of gear firefighters can use when their sets are dirty.
“We don’t want people going through what we’ve gone through,” Tyson said.