ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WLOS) — A 10-cent wrist band could help researchers give North Carolina firefighters greater insight into their risks of cancer.
Occupational Health and Safety data reveals firefighters are nine percent more likely to get cancer than the general population. Why is part of a study between the Duke Cancer Institute, Duke University, and North Carolina firefighters.
As part of News 13’s Deadlier than Fire series and documentary, News 13’s got a look at the groundbreaking work and why it could have a national impact.
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INSPIRATION FOR THE RESEARCH
“A lot of time firefighters are naturally inquisitive to where they want to get to the deeper answer,” explained Durham Firefighter Corey Miller.
Miller’s curiosity sparked a letter several years ago.
“And that partnership has been growing ever since,” said Miller.
That curiosity has blossomed into a joint effort between Duke University researchers, Duke Cancer Institute, and Durham fire station four, just six miles apart, now collaborating for the first time.
“We’re really interested in this question, what’s different about their exposures when they’re responding to a fire versus when they’re just actively living and working in the fire station,” said Dr. Heather Stapleton, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Ronie-Richele Garcia-Johnson Distinguished Professor.
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The answer forged a partnership sealed in a silicone bracelet; you likely have one very similar in a drawer around your home. What’s different is these bracelets may give firefighters some idea of their cancer risks.
“Certainly, we want to know what gets into the body,” said Dr. Stapleton.
That's often done with a urine or blood sample.
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“Those can be difficult to get particularly before or after fire events,” said Dr. Stapleton.
She believed the 10-cent bracelet which absorbs chemicals similar to your skin was a better solution.
“They can be handed out and mailed back and forth and provide a wealth of information on exposures in one small piece of silicone,” said Stapleton.
Stapleton’s team cleaned them of any chemicals, packaged them, and sent firefighters dozens in late 2019.
“When we wear it, we take this tin foil off and throw this away and then we put the band on and it doesn't come off of us until one of these is complete,” explained Miller as he showed News 13 the process for firefighters.
Researchers chose three different exposures, at work while responding to a fire, off duty at home, and in the fire station, but not responding to a fire. Firefighters also had to record their activity on a questionnaire they received from researchers.
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“How long did the fire last, were they wearing all their personal protective equipment, how long was it before they removed it and there’s a variety of different questions that we asked,” explained Stapleton.
“When we take it off we put it back in the tin foil and we put it in the refrigerator,” said Miller. That’s until they could be collected and returned to researchers.
Stapleton explained they’re testing for specific carcinogens. “These are organic chemicals formed during the combustion process from things like wood, petroleum products, plastics, etc. We know some PH’s are carcinogens, we’re evaluating a whole suite of PH’s on the wristbands again to look at those differences between levels when they respond to a fire and when they’re just working or off duty,” said Stapleton.
The work's impact, felt even before the study’s results could be given to firefighters.
“We recently lost a member, Wayne Page due to esophageal cancer,” said Miller. “It’s also affected us by numerous skin cancer claims.”
The pandemic had paused testing, but 2021 promises answers.
“I’m a little anxious, I’m also intrigued to see what they found, because I think it’s all going to be very interesting,” said Miller who has yet to receive his results.
News 13 questioned Stapleton, why is it important to take a look at this information?
“Well, what I’m hoping is it will provide more insight into the exposures that may be more hazardous, exposures that we need to critically think about and evaluate and begin to mitigate or reduce our exposure to those compounds,” explained Stapleton.
Helping firefighters not just in North Carolina, but recommendations shared nationwide.
“Having this information can I think help us rethink strategies about how we respond to fires, our actions, how firefighters decontaminate their gear when they come back,” said Stapleton.
“As a firefighter, we take calculated risk all the time. With cancer it’s not a matter of how, it’s a matter of when and we want to do everything we can do to reduce that,” said Miller.
Researchers plan to compare results between several fire stations in Raleigh and Durham and could scale up to involving more departments state and nationwide depending on what they learn. May 13th in our Deadlier than Fire series a look at how one department hopes to catch cancer in its earliest stages.
News 13 has also followed several mountain firefighters through their cancer journey and is holding lawmakers accountable for being one of the last states to approve presumptive cancer benefits for diagnosed firefighters. It's detailed in an upcoming hour-long documentary: Deadlier than Fire. The release is on May 20th.
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You can read more about firefighters' effort to have the state recognize cancer as an occupational hazard in North Carolina. The state is one of the remaining two in the US without Line of Duty benefits for active firefighters battling cancer.
You can see how cancer is impacting firefighters and the types of cancers that are affecting firefighters.