Study: Hoosier firefighters face increased risk of dying from cancer

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Cancer is the main killer of firefighters across the country and a new study shows Hoosiers are at higher risk.

That study, conducted by researchers at IUPUI, shows out of 2,818 Indiana firefighters who died between 1985 and 2013, 30.4 percent died from malignant cancers and firefighters are at 20 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than non-firefighters.

The risk is a stark reality for Eric Strohacker. The 45-year-old joined the Indianapolis Fire Department 19 years ago because he loved fighting fires and saving lives.

"I wouldn't think of doing anything else," Strohacker said.

It's a career that made him feel invincible until his latest battle with a devastating diagnosis.

"I had a colonoscopy and they found it. First or second week of January is when I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer," Strohacker explained. "You never expected you to be the one who needed saving or any kind of help."

But he's part of an alarming trend.

A new study from IUPUI finds not only is cancer the leading cause of death for Hoosier firefighters, but they're also 20 percent more likely to die from cancer than non-firefighters.

"Cancer's not new. Cancer's not new in the fire service, but the magnitude of cancer is," said Kevin Crawley, IFD Division Chief of Health and Safety. "These are numbers in a study to most people. But to us, these are people. These are our co-workers."

Crawley said he gets a call that a fellow firefighter has cancer every other week.

"We probably have somewhere around 80 firefighters currently out of 1,200 that have a cancer diagnosis," Crawley said.

It's why IFD is aggressively working to reduce risk with proactive changes for the department. They're now requiring crews wear specialized breathing masks longer at a fire scene and decontaminate after every fire.

They're trying to reduce danger at the fire station, too.

"We have an apparatus bay with diesel fire apparatus. That diesel has benzene in it. Benzene's a carcinogen. Well in between calls they'll sit there and watch tv. They're sitting right there in all of that, the turnout gear that's off-gassing, the trucks that are spewing exhaust," Crawley explained.

So they're now limiting exposure to fumes and fuel, cleaning duct work and replacing filters more often, washing gear coated with toxins separately and storing it differently.

"When we store our gear, instead of having them right by the apparatus where the diesel exhaust is pouring onto it and then we put it on, we're putting those in separate areas," Crawley said, "separate rooms."

They're all changes meant to keep their firefighters, their friends, safer.

"I think a lot of guys have the same mentality as I did is that it's not going to happen to you until it does," Strohacker said.

Strohacker is now cancer-free and has one more surgery before getting back to protecting the public.

To mitigate cancer risk, IFD also now has incentives for firefighters who don't smoke tobacco. Plus crews get annual physicals, to potentially catch cancer early.