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Tucson Fire reducing, tracking cancer exposure

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Posted at 5:33 PM, Jan 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-25 20:37:14-05

TUCSON, Ariz. - Firefighters put their lives on the line extinguishing fires, all while increasing their chances of developing cancer. The Tucson Fire Department is working to reduce and track their exposure to cancer-causing elements.

TFD began taking a deep dive into understanding and tracking cancer risks when they lost one of their own five years ago. Tom Quesnel was an arson investigator and with TFD for 25 years.

"His emphasis on his diagnosis with cancer was really important for us to understand what he went through," Darin Wallentine, Deputy Chief of Safety and Wellness said.

Wallentine says TFD has been implementing practices to mitigate the high risk of cancer firefighters face.

"It's all of the stuff that we have in our homes that burns," Wallentine said. "And often times, when we go into a fire, we have no idea what's burning. So we're going into this, what we would call a toxic soup of all of these chemicals, having no idea what we're encountering."

Over the past five years, TFD has implemented keeping air packs on longer at scenes, and washing turnout gear with soap and water after a fire, to lower cancer-causing elements.

Wallentine says research shows washing turnout gear can reduce cancer contaminants up to 80 percent.

"It's not one big fire [that] is going to potentially result in cancer," Wallentine said. "But it's those small fires over the course of 20 to 25 years, that as they build up over time, puts all of our firefighters at risk for cancer, just by becoming a firefighter."

These practices and policies are then stored in cloud technology, Wallentine says, so firefighters are able to track their exposures from each fire they respond to. After certain fires, blood and urine will be tested and compared to baseline numbers, taken as a recruit or at a yearly physical.

TFD will publish their findings soon, but preliminary data looks promising, Wallentine says. The department has seen some improvements already and cancer exposure has gone down.

"It's important that our firefighters come on, they understand the risks, but now we're trying to give them the tools that they can best protect themselves and prevent those exposures -- whether they're breathing it in, or if they get it on their skin."

Now, TFD is tracking new recruits, to see if there's any changes for them over the next 20 years or so, as they move through their career.