CBS46 Investigation: Departments don't have policies to protect - CBS46 News

CBS46 Investigation: Departments don't have policies to protect firefighters from cancer

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A CBS46 investigation found fire departments across metro Atlanta don't have policies in place to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals, potentially increasing firefighters' risk of developing cancer.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found firefighters are at an increased risk of developing certain cancers.

Experts said the increasingly toxic fires and the inhalation of engine diesel exhaust and lingering chemicals on protective gear may be to blame. 

Jason Trotter, 36, a Fairburn firefighter, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma last year. Trotter said cancer isn't talked about within the fire service despite the increased risk that's been suspected for years.  

"We do everything we can to protect ourselves when we go out to these incidents, but we're not doing it in our station life," said Trotter.  

During a visit to Fairburn Station 21, CBS46 investigative reporter Jeff Chirico found the department doesn't own diesel exhaust systems to prevent the cancer-causing chemicals trucks spew from filling the air inside the station. 

Fairburn Fire Chief Jody Weller told Chirico that the national standard calls for all diesel exhaust to be removed without leaving any type of residue. Weller said he hopes the fans he has in place are doing the trick but admitted to Chirico that he has never had the air quality checked to ensure they are.

CBS46 News also found personal protective gear hang feet from the trucks within the engine bay. National Fire Protection Association standards call for the gear to be stored separately to prevent exposure to both diesel exhaust and damaging UV rays.

The Fairburn departments also doesn't own a professional grade washing machine called an extractor to deep clean the firefighters' protective gear. Weller pointed out firefighters can use an extractor at nearby partner agency but admitted only three sets of gear have been cleaned in the past year. After we questioned whether it was acceptable, Weller said he is making changes to ensure gear is cleaned more often.

In addition to these risks, CBS46 also found a fire hazard within the station. Firefighters sleep in quarters without an emergency exit like a window.

Weller admitted to Chirico that he had asked the city council for money to buy the necessary gear to keep firefighters safe.

Weller pointed out the station was built in the 1980s and doesn't meet newer standards. However, Fairburn voters approved a bond to build a new fire station in 2010. City leaders haven't moved forward with construction. 

Fairburn isn't the only department which fails to have policies in place to limit firefighters' exposure to harmful chemicals within the station. A survey of local departments revealed only five departments have both policies and working diesel exhaust systems. Some stations indicated they do not have a need for policies since they own diesel exhaust systems that work automatically and don't require personnel to operate.

Atlanta Fire Rescue Chief Kelvin Cochran said the city installed diesel exhaust systems 10 years ago but repairing them is often cost-prohibitive. Cochran said three of the city's systems don't currently work and will be fixed this week. 

"The challenge now is maintaining those systems and replacing them when the cost of repairs exceeds the benefits of putting in a new system," said Cochran.

The Firefighter Cancer Support Network offers resources to educate firefighters and fire department officials about the increased risk of cancer and how to prevent it.  

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