Examiner Editorial: SFFD should lead in U.S. firefighter cancer study

Despite all improvements in modern protective equipment, firefighters still run a significant chance of dangerous exposure to toxic smoke. This apparently makes cancer one of the higher-than-average risks of a firefighting career.

Here in the San Francisco Fire Department, at any given time — including right now — roughly three firefighters are battling a rare form of kidney cancer, transitional cell carcinoma. At least four firefighters from the same SoMa station have been stricken by that cancer years apart, which is not easy to dismiss as a coincidence.

No less than eight of the department’s first 210 female firefighters have been diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s an unusually high average, with many of those cases not found until years after retirement. Brain cancer and prostate cancer among firefighters is also “off the charts,” according to John Hanley, president of the San Francisco Firefighters Local 798 union.

Now, a first-of-its-kind study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health will attempt to chronicle the number of firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer and how many died from the disease. The goal is to better understand how cancer is linked to the smoke and chemicals that could go in the lungs of firefighters every time they face a significant blaze.

This nationwide federal study expects to take the largest sample of U.S. firefighters ever assembled. Personal information of firefighters from representative departments throughout the country for the past 40 to 50 years would be collected. And the San Francisco Fire Department was among the first to be invited.

The City’s Fire Commission and the firefighters union are pressing for San Francisco to participate actively in this study that could be an important early step in saving the lives of fire veterans. The San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, chaired by a now-retired survivor of transitional cell carcinoma, is strongly on board.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the Fire Department’s top echelon that appears somewhat hesitant to join the study. Departmental spokespeople insist that they “hope” the department will be able to participate, but the proposal is still “under review.”

Officials’ sticking point is stated as being the legal restrictions on releasing confidential personnel records, particularly Social Security numbers of retirees and other former employees. The study would require those ID numbers for all firefighters serving during the past 50 years because Social Security is the best way to track medical treatments.

This groundbreaking survey seems vital to the future health of firefighting professionals. It’s fine for the Fire Department to show due diligence, but no foot-dragging can be allowed. Our department must resolve all bureaucratic issues so San Francisco can take the lead in supporting firefighter cancer research.

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