- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 9, 2018

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - When Anthony Leyba climbs inside a fire engine at Santa Fe County Fire Station No. 61 in Agua Fria village, he can tell if his colleagues have responded to a structure fire, even one that occurred several days earlier.

The scent is unmistakable, he said - a combination of the acrid odor of burned wood and the noxious stink of charred plastic.

One of Leyba’s colleagues once joked that it smelled like cancer. That’s not far off.

According to the International Association of Firefighters, cancer is the No. 1 line-of-duty cause of death for men and women who fight structure fires.

Much of the risk, research says, comes from the burning plastics, chemicals and toxic materials that firefighters are exposed to each time they respond to a burning home, car or dumpster.



Leyba, 31, can’t be entirely sure his two bouts with testicular cancer were a direct result of his seven-plus years as a firefighter. But an avalanche of data that’s piled up over the past few decades confirms that for him, and hundreds of thousands of other firefighters around the country, cancer is a hidden danger of the job.

A federal study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that firefighters’ rate of cancer-related death was 14 percent higher than members of the general public. Their rate of cancer diagnosis was about 9 percent higher.

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls this a “modest” increase, risks of certain types of cancer actually double.

Firefighters face double the risk of contracting testicular cancer and mesothelioma, caused by asbestos, for example.

“For all of the wonderful things this job gives to us, it takes,” said Lt. Ramon Vilorio, also with Santa Fe County. “. We sacrifice a lot to save a life.”

As research better outlines the risks firefighters face, local unions and fire departments are taking steps to protect their people.

It’s about time, local firefighters say.

Eutimio Ortiz, a Santa Fe County firefighter and president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 4366, says the union is about to launch a health and safety committee to look specifically at issues like cancer and other work-related health concerns.

“We’re behind the curve right now,” Ortiz said. “We really need to get caught up. And it requires a culture change.”

For years, Ortiz said, firefighters treated dirty gear as a badge of honor. As it turns out, the longer they carried around that soot, the longer they were exposed to carcinogens.

Leyba didn’t know any of this when he first signed on as a firefighter in Las Vegas, New Mexico, almost eight years ago. He just wanted to help people.

When Leyba came down with testicular cancer in 2014, in his mid-20s, he wasn’t sure how it could have happened.

“I asked (the doctor), could it be because I’m a firefighter? He was unsure,” Leyba said. “. When I got it at that point, cancer awareness was really starting to come to light. It was unknown if it was occupational at that point.”

That time, Leyba had surgery to remove a tumor.

But about a year later, after Leyba had moved to Santa Fe County for work, his cancer recurred. It had metastasized to his lungs. He needed intensive chemotherapy to get rid of it and was out of work for months.

Leyba was more educated then about the cancer risks associated with firefighting, he said. He knew carcinogens could be absorbed through his skin and that his daily life as a firefighter meant potential exposure to the danger every day he was on the job.

When firefighters enter a burning building or approach a burning car or dumpster, they’re exposed to “potentially thousands of toxic combustion products,” according to a 2015 paper from Canada’s University of the Fraser Valley.

All fires release some toxins and carcinogens, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. But as construction materials have evolved to include more polymers and synthetic products, the toxicity of structure fires also has increased, researchers believe.

The new dangers come from burning plastics, petroleum products, chemicals and other items found in modern construction materials and furniture. Firefighters can inhale or inadvertently swallow these toxins while they’re on an active fire, or even long afterward as they handle dirty gear, the Fraser Valley paper said.

Cancer-causing agents also can be absorbed through the skin. Studies show that the hotter skin gets - say, during an active fire - the more skin absorption increases.

To make matters worse, the International Agency for Research on Cancer also has classified the fumes from diesel fuel - which is used to power most fire engines - as a carcinogen.

Louis Gonzales, a retired firefighter who worked for the city of Santa Fe Fire Department from 1974-97, thinks cancers were certainly part of the job three decades ago. But the risks were different, he said. And the research wasn’t there to back it up.

“Even back then, you knew firefighters were getting sick and dying of cancer,” he said. “But it really didn’t come to the forefront until this day and age.”

Gonzales remembers fighting a transformer fire, for instance, and then later learning the transformer was made with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, highly toxic chemicals banned in the U.S. in 1979.

Today, the PCB risk is diminished - but firefighters face big problems from furniture, bedding, paint and other petroleum-based products, Gonzales said.

“Back in the day when we first started, when they made furniture, they made it out of wood and regular fabrics,” he said. “There’s a big difference.”

Louis Gonzales served as a city of Santa Fe firefighter for nearly 23 years without a cancer diagnosis.

His son, Nick Gonzales, followed in his footsteps. The younger Gonzales was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2014, after almost eight years on the job.

“When you’re younger, you don’t think about that stuff. You think you’re invincible,” Nick Gonzales said. He was 34 when he was diagnosed. A year later, he went back to work. He feels it’s his duty to help educate other firefighters on the risks they face.

“I don’t think any firefighter is really safe, actually,” Nick Gonzales said. “It’s just limiting your exposure and being aware, and taking that to heart in your protective gear, limiting yourself from the exhaust of our trucks, stuff like that.”

Administrators at local firehouses say they’ve made cancer awareness a priority in recent years. Carlos Nava, hired as the first health and safety officer at the city of Santa Fe Fire Department at the end of 2016, says the department has put together cancer prevention trainings and implemented a policy that explicitly dictates what firefighters should do to reduce exposure to carcinogens.

Part of that policy requires firefighters send their gear to be washed as soon as crews finish with a fire. While they wait, firefighters can use reserve gear.

“You just want to prevent anybody else from coming down with cancer,” Nava said. “You want them to go the completion of the career, to get to retirement and to enjoy their life after retirement.”

Santa Fe County firefighters don’t yet have a second set of gear to change into after a fire. Pushing for that gear is one of Ortiz’s top priorities as a union leader.

For the moment, Ortiz, Leyba and other firefighters rinse off one another after a fire in hopes of minimizing exposure to carcinogens. After their shift, they can wash their gear in a fire-specific washer. They have to wait, Ortiz said, because they could get called out to another fire - and they don’t want to risk rushing out in sopping-wet gear.

“In the interim, we’re basically using a garden hose to get as much of (the soot) off and hope and pray that’s enough,” Ortiz said. “We know that it’s not.”

Capt. Mike Jaffa of the Santa Fe County Fire Department said the administration is working to get more gear. Each set costs around $3,000, he said, and buying a spare set for the entire department - which includes nearly 100 paid staff and 250 volunteers - would cost more than $1 million.

Outfitting only the paid staff, Ortiz pointed out, would cost only a fraction of that, at $300,000.

Jaffa said the department has purchased each firefighter a second set of hoods to protect their heads and necks. The department also installed the washing machines so firefighters can wash their gear after a shift. And Jaffa does training for all firefighters that recommends practices like showering as soon as possible after a fire, wiping off soot at the scene of a fire and keeping gear out of living areas, for example.

“I think we’ve made huge strides,” he said. “It’s just continuing to put one foot in front of the other, and keeping the focus on protecting our folks and keep trying to find the money we need to take that next step.”

Leyba’s cancer has been in remission for three years. In two more years, he’ll be considered officially cancer free. But every year, when he goes in for his checkup, he gets a little bit nervous.

“I have that sense of anxiety when I’m going for my annual checkup,” he said. “Are they going to find something?”

If he were to get bad news, Leyba said, he wouldn’t quit his job with the department, but he would try to find work there that wouldn’t leave him so exposed.

“I don’t regret any career choices I’ve made being a firefighter. It’s a good job. I love it,” he said. “Just knowing that at the end of the day, when you go home, you potentially made a difference in somebody’s life.”

___

Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.santafenewmexican.com

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