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UA and TFD team up to research cancer in firefighters - KVOA | KVOA.com | Tucson, Arizona

UA and TFD team up to research cancer in firefighters

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TUCSON - Researchers from the Tucson Fire Department and University of Arizona are making progress in the fight against firefighter cancer.

Cancer almost ruined Ed Nied's retirement. A year after surgery he was given a clean bill of health.

"There's a lot of people from Tucson Fire Department that are out there in their retirement suffering right now," Nied said. "And it's tragic."

Tom Quesnel was a fire cause investigator for 20 years. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012. He died in 2014. It was ruled a line-of-duty death because the cancer was clearly caused by his job. He was about to move to his New Mexico ranch with his wife, Janet.

"Very difficult years," Janet Quesnel said. "He was due to retire in the midst of all that, and so that made it even more difficult."

Before he died, he visited the office of Capt. John Gulotta, who is in charge of the department's safety.

"I think that is something that will stick with me forever," Gulotta said, "is that he said, 'And whatever you do, don't let another fire family suffer like mine.'"

Cancer was the cause of 70 percent of line-of-duty firefighter deaths in 2016, and firefighters' chances of dying from cancer are 14 percent higher than the general population, according to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

Gulotta later got a call from Dr. Jeff Burgess, the associate dean for research at Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at University of Arizona. Gulotta and Burgess designed a study and received a FEMA grant.

"Whenever you burn regular household materials, the smoke, the soot that's left over, all contains cancer-causing chemicals," Burgess said.

The problem seems to get worse as the construction industry uses more plastics and synthetics. Firefighters are exposed to the toxins through their lungs, skin and mouths.

Most of the department is participating in the research. Firefighters, including new recruits, filled out a survey and gave blood, urine and buccal samples. They give urine samples after every fire. The results are also compared to their annual physical exams.

Jared Hendry is a new firefighter who did not know about that risk of the job.

"No, it wasn't even a thought," Hendry said, "didn't even think of it."

Nick Kohler is a new firefighter who is glad he is participating in the study.

"It's a good feeling," he said, "because it kind of puts me in a position where I can help my fellow firefighters."

The department is methodically testing practices that should reduce exposure to cancerous toxins.

"We knew that the smoke was bad, and we knew washing it off our gear was the right thing to do," Gulotta said, "but we really didn't have the science to prove it."

Investigators are now using relatively light airpacks after fires. Firefighters are doing a wet wash-down of their gear after every fire. Engineers who stay by the truck are using oxygen, even thought they do not enter the fire. No gear is allowed in the cabin of a truck unless it is washed or bagged.

The practices will become permanent if the science proves they help.

UA is expanding the study and working with other cities across the country. It could lead to changes all over the world.

"They put their lives on the line every day," Quesnel said, "so we should be able to help keep their future safe."

Quesnel hired an attorney to navigate the system and receive the proper benefits from a line-of-duty death. The department was supportive in the process, but the laws and procedures can be complicated. Gulotta hopes this study can help change that in the Arizona legislature.

The Rural/Metro Fire Department has recently adopted a gear wash-down similar to Tucson's. They also increased the exchange of clean firefighter hoods, according to Capt. Patrick Talley.

In the Golder Ranch Fire District, firefighters are accepting changes because the risk is becoming more widely known, according to spokesperson Anne-Marie Braswell.

The Drexel Heights Fire Department does not have any known cases of cancer related to exposure at work. The department is increasing emphasis on washing gear and using breathing apparatus. Physical exams include more emphasis on cancer awareness, according to Chief Douglas Chappell.

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