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Cancer is silent threat to firefighters nationwide, in Kern County

FILE - A photo taken by the Kern County Fire Department shows firefighters putting out a fire in a trash compactor at a shopping center in west Bakersfield, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. (Kern County Fire Department)

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - When the loud emergency-call tone goes off throughout the fire station, firefighters gear up for the unknown.

In less than 90 seconds, they strap on their boots, pull up their overall pants and zip up their fire-protective jackets. This gear is their armor.

Whether it’s dousing flames on a burning home or helping people get through a medical emergency, the men and women of the fire service are there for us when we need them the most.

But there is a threat that is silently killing firefighters, and health experts are just beginning to understand the horrific magnitude of the problem.

Cancer has become the most dangerous and unrecognized threat to the health and safety of our nation’s firefighters, and they are exposed to cancer-causing agents on a daily basis.

“It’s no longer the threat of being injured or burned [in] a fire,” said Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall. “Now, we have the additional threat of dying of cancer in 10 years."

In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published results from the largest study of cancer risk among career firefighters in the United States. The study looked at just under 30,000 firefighters over a 60-year span. It showed that compared with the general population, firefighters are at higher risk for certain kinds of cancer. Some of the most common cancers were oral, digestive, respiratory, genital and urinary.

"The byproducts of a fire, which are in smoke, gets in your lungs, which gets into your blood stream, which is transported throughout your body,” said Marshall. “The cumulative effects of breathing in smoke over a 30- to 40-year career in the fire service proved to be deadly."

The Kern County Fire Department is taking steps to make sure its firefighters remain safe and healthy. The department has ordered that all firefighters have an extra set of turnouts. They decontaminate themselves with soap and water after every fire and wipe themselves clean on the scene. They safely store their toxic gear in a separate compartment in their fire truck, and they shower as soon as they get back to the station.

"That badge of honor that I’m the dirtiest guy and I did the most work, that needs to go away,” said Kern County Fire Capt. Garret Drolen. “We are trying to stop that. You need to be clean to be healthy."

If you would like to help firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer, you can make a tax-deductible donation to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

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