Firefighters and Cancer

By: Tina Stein
By: Tina Stein

BELOIT (WIFR) -- It only took five years of fighting fires before Lieutenant Shaun Eberdt was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The Beloit firefighter was 25 at the time.

"I bounced back alright."

At least four others on the department have also been diagnosed with cancer.

"Things that we're exposed to made it much more likely that I'd have cancer and being a double cancer person, I think it's more than a coincidence," says now retired Lt. Mark Gustafson.

Lieutenant Gustafson also survived testicular cancer. According to a study done at the University of Cincinnati, firefighters have a 100-percent higher risk of developing testicular cancer. The risks are also higher for prostate cancer, multiple myeloma and non-hodgkins lymphoma. Gustafson actually retired last year, a year early to deal with non-hodgkins lymphoma. The same disease that struck Lt. Mike Rosario in 2008.

"I had a tumor removed from my neck area and that's one area that's not covered that much, but it's the first thing after your hard where stuff falls on," says Lt. Rosario.

There is no official link between cancer and fire-related carcinogens. But you can't help but wonder whether it's more than coincidence that twelve Cherry Valley firefighters who got cancer, all responded to the same emergency.

"In the last couple years after going to more and more funerals of past firefighters, I realized most of these were at that one fire. At that time, just at Station One we're running at almost a 40-to-50-percent cancer rate of people that were at that fire, says Cherry Valley Fire Chief Craig Wilt.

It was the early 70's when the old WKWL radio station on Bell School, now WXRX, burned to the ground. Many suspect toxins from vinyl records sparked the onset of health problems.

"You just don't know what you're getting into."

Fire protection gear has greatly improved since then. But Deputy Chief Bruce Hedrington, who lived through colorectal cancer, says that doesn't mean they're any safer, long-term, than before.

"Our gear is allowing us to get in deeper. Back in the day you had a rubber coat, when it started heating up, you knew you were hot, now it protects us so well, we could be very deep into a fire and be exposed to a lot of products that we normally wouldn't be compared to the old days our gear told us this gear is going to fail," says Deputy Chief Hedrington.

Products that include known carcinogens like benzene, asbestos, formaldehyde and soot. Not to mention diesel engine exhaust that used to be regularly inhaled at the firehouse. Despite potential risks, these firefighters say they wouldn't have changed their professions. Or expect rookies to escape the field.

"I don't think that would discourage the caliber of people that we get that apply and want to get this kind of job," says Lt. Eberdt.

There is no overarching agency that keeps track of firefighters diagnosed with cancer. And many of the other local fire chiefs I talked to didn't feel comfortable linking their cancer cases to fighting fires. However the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is now working on a multi-year study to see if there truly is that link. They haven't invited any local departments to take part since they're too small for the study.

From earlier...

ROCKFORD (WIFR) --They run towards danger when everyone else is running away, but what we typically don't realize is that firefighters are often stuck with the consequences long after flames are extinguished.

A 23 news investigation has discovered a high rate of cancer in several local fire departments. Many suspect on the job carcinogens may have caused them to get sick. In fact, a recent study found firefighters are twice as likely to get testicular cancer than anyone else.

Cherry Valley Fire Chief Craig Wilt said, "So far we've got over 20 firefighters from the Cherry Valley Fire Department that have had cancer so it's a very high rate percentage wise of cancer to the number of firefighters.”

If you look strictly at those that were on the department in the mid-70s that's nearly a 50-percent cancer rate. Join us for the special report tonight on the 23 News Update at Ten. When we’ll introduce you to several local firefighters who survived cancer and share some of the risks involved.


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