Running into a burning building, instead of away from the danger, defies reason and nearly every human impulse. But that is exactly what our firefighters do in Nebraska and across the country every day. At the ring of a bell, these heroes in our communities risk their lives to ensure we are safe in some of life’s most dangerous situations.
However, we have learned in recent years that running into the flames is not the only dangerous part of a firefighter’s job.
If we think about what is in our own homes, we can understand why. From furniture to cleaning supplies under the kitchen sink, all of these materials will likely burn in a house fire — releasing toxic chemicals, fumes and carcinogens into the air. This creates an additional risk that our firefighters must shoulder when they enter a burning home or building. And even when the fire is extinguished, black soot and dangerous chemicals can stick to firefighters’ gear.
In 2015, a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that our nation’s firefighters have a greater number of cancer diagnoses and deaths from specific types of cancer, including digestive, respiratory, oral cancers and others. Tragically, firefighters are succumbing to these types of cancers at a rate that is nearly 14 percent higher than the general public. The study confirmed that firefighters have an increased risk of developing cancer because of what is known as “occupational exposure.”
The Bruns family has experienced these devastating effects firsthand. A Lincoln Journal Star article featured two brothers, Gary and Alan Bruns, who lost their father to cancer in 2001. Their father served as a firefighter and fire inspector in Lincoln for 35 years. Both brothers have followed in their father’s footsteps to become firefighters themselves and have been working to find solutions to this grave issue.
Unfortunately, small sample sizes during research and the lack of important occupational information have limited the precision of these studies. More robust data and statistics are needed to provide a clearer and more comprehensive picture of the causal links between firefighting and cancer.
Last year, President Trump signed the bipartisan Firefighter Cancer Registry Act into law. The measure directed the Centers for Disease Control to develop a national, voluntary registry that collects and monitors the prevalence, incidence and types of cancers among firefighters. This allows fire stations to send their information to the researchers and medical professionals at NIOSH, so they are able to analyze trends and the relationship between firefighting and the increased risk of cancer.
Passage of the law was a step in the right direction, but I am committed to doing more to ensure the Firefighter Cancer Registry receives the resources it needs to save lives.
This is why I partnered with Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., in writing a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee requesting $2.5 million to fully fund the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act. The funding will be used to create an IT system that supports the national registry, enables firefighters to share their data and guarantees this personal data remains secure and private.
Each year I meet with firefighter groups that serve communities across the Good Life, and they commonly note that making progress on this tragic issue is one of their top priorities.
Our firefighters always have our backs when we need them the most, and they deserve our full help and support in return.
If we improve our understanding of the risks and the potential causes of firefighting and increased cancer rates, we can develop better ways to provide protection and prevent this deadly disease.