PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Firefighters are used to rushing into burning buildings, and now some are worrying if they may also end fighting an another threat — cancer.
Rhode Island firefighters are pushing a bill that would authorize the state Department of Health to study the rate of cancer among members of their profession.
Supporters of the bill say they want to find out if years of battling smoke-filled blazes could cause a spike in cancer. There are few solid statistics on the rate of cancer among firefighters in Rhode Island.
The bill, which has passed the state Senate, would also create an education campaign to warn firefighters about the possible cancer risks associated with the job.
Providence Fire Chief George Farrell, 52, is one of those firefighters supporting the initiative.
Farrell was diagnosed last year with chronic myelogenous leukemia — a type of cancer that results in an abnormally high production of white blood cells in the bone marrow.
Although it’s hard to point to a single cause, Farrell says he’s certain that exposure to radiation and benzene, both byproducts of fire, is partly to blame.
“We know this job is inherently dangerous. But how many guys know they will develop cancer from this job?” Farrell told the Providence Journal.
He said seven or eight people in his department have been diagnosed with cancer and others have been diagnosed after leaving the job.
The state Senate last month passed a bill that would require the Department of Health study the incidence of cancer among firefighters statewide.
It would also allow the health department, the state fire marshal and local governments to establish prevention programs for firefighters and those in similar professions.
“Each day, firefighters are put at risk, but one risk they should not face is an increased risk of cancer, and early detection is our best hope to beat this epidemic,” said Timothy McLaughlin, president of the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs and chief of the Pawtucket Fire Department.
National studies show firefighters face higher risks of certain types of cancer, including those of the colon, brain, testicles, kidneys and bladder.
A study by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found firefighters had nearly twice the risk of brain cancer and a 36-percent higher risk of colon cancer compared with men in other occupations.
“All of this is an educational process,” Farrell said. “Documenting these instances and protecting our firefighters is in the public’s interest.”