By Victoria Hansen
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) — They do what most would never dare — rush into burning buildings saving lives and homes. But many firefighters are now dying from something that stays with them long after the flames are out.
“The tumor was larger than a baseball,” said Goose Creek Fire Chief Steve Chapman.
Chief Chapman was diagnosed with cancer five years ago. Sharp stomach pains sent him to the doctor. A biopsy revealed the bitter truth. He had colon cancer, one of the leading killers of men.
“I was really shocked because there has really been no significant history in my family of any kind of cancer,” he said.
Fortunately the cancer was caught early. But the now 51-year-old man who has been fighting fires since he was a teen still wonders why he ended up with cancer.
“It come from out of nowhere and it really makes you wonder if it’s not because of my profession,” Chapman said.
Several recent medical studies, including one from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, show firefighters are at an increased risk for cancer, especially respiratory, urinary and digestive.
Some show testicular cancer rates are double the rate seen in the rest of the population.
Researcher now believe not only exposure at the scene, but all of the soot and caked on carcinogens on their gear worn over and over again are quietly killing firefighters.
The Goose Creek Fire Department knows all too well.
“Losing Steve has changed our department in a lot of ways,” said Chief Chapman.
Firefighter Steve Skipton was just 41 years old when cancer ravaged his kidneys, lungs and pelvis. It robbed four children of their father, and a wife of her love.
It was a loss felt through other departments as well.
“I used to think I was invincible,” said North Charleston Fire Captain Samuel Gadson. “Hey you do this kind of job being a fireman, you run into burning buildings. Look now you got something that can actually kill you.”
Captain Gadson was diagnosed with thyroid cancer earlier this year. A new, more expensive physical that included ultrasound caught it early.
“If [North Charleston Fire Chief Greg Bulanow] hadn’t come in and done this, then my detection would have gone unnoticed unless I personally asked for an ultrasound to be done,” said Captain Gadson.
It opened the department’s eyes.
“We didn’t know what to expect the first time we did such an in depth physical like that,” said Chief Bulanow.
What they found was 25 of 230 firefighters tested — nearly one-fifth — had nodules on their thyroids. Not all were cancer, but the chief’s was.
“Certainly I want to be here to take care of my family and also do my job, but I consider myself very fortunate to have found it early,” said Chief Bulanow.
Both the Chief and Captain Gadson have been fighting fires for more than 20 years. They believe those fires are even more deadly now. They’re fueled not just by wood, but by plastics.
“Now it’s primarily synthetic materials that burn hotter and produce very toxic smoke,” said Chief Bulanow.
“It used to be a badge of honor to always have that dirty gear, that tarred up helmet and that dirty mask,” said Captain Gadson. “That’s the way it was. Now I know better.”
It’s a strange sight in the department, but a huge, $7,000 washing machine now sits in the fire house off Dorchester Road. Firefighters are not only encouraged to shower, but their gear is cleaned. The chief is even working on getting two sets of gear for every firefighter.
“This is a significant investment in the health and welfare of our people,” said Chief Bulanow.
It’s an investment the chief and others hope will pay off for generations to come.
“If we can take that and decrease the numbers every year by us following the right safety measures that we have to follow then I’ll take that every day, all day,” said Captain Gadson.
For a closer look at the NIOSH study, click here.
If you or someone you know is a firefighter struggling with medical bills due to a cancer diagnosis, we’d like to hear from you. Just contact Victoria Hansen at firstname.lastname@example.org