Columbia, SC (WLTX) - Last year in South Carolina four firefighters died in the line of duty. But that is not the leading cause of death in firefighters.
According to the International Association of Firefighters, cancer is the leading cause of death in firefighters at 63%. But this battle may not be considered in the line of duty, despite what some studies show. Some firefighters believe their love for the job, may be killing them. 73 year-old, Bucky Mock is one of them. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2012. He tells News 19, "I kinda figure what's gonna happen is what's gonna happen, and I will keep doing what I can until the inevitable."
Mock has gone through numerous rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrrow transplant. But there is no cure for his type of cancer at this time. He tells News 19 about the moment he realized his love may be to blame. He says, "There was a tag included in the gear. And they passed that around the room and on that tag it said wash your gear. They said cancer is the leading cause of death in firefighters. And multiple myeloma is one of the leading firefighter cancers."
A Nurse by trade, Mock has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 20 years, first in Minnesota and then in Clarendon County. But that was the first time he had seen that tag in new gear. He says, "And all of the sudden it dawned on me, that my cancer came from fire fighting. It was a good possibility. And it hurt."
Cindy Ells started the International Firefighters Cancer Foundation after she noticed too many of her co-workers in the Maryland Fire Service were receiving cancer diagnosis. Now she travels the country educating firefighters and others on what research shows about a connection between fighting fires and cancer. At the Firefighters Conference in Columbia, she shared statistics. "Yes gentlemen you are looking at a very high rate of testicular cancer, multiple myoloma, the other blood cancers. Were actually some of the first ones that we could attribute to a benzine exposure."
According to research she cites in her presentations, firefighters are more than 100 times more likely to get those cancers than the general population.
She tells News 19, "That's what makes firefighting so unique. You are getting the stacking effect of many chemicals and chemicals that weren't designed to go together. So the body and the body's immune system is not designed to fight these. And hence we have a huge growing cancer effort."
But she says something that hinders that effort is the lack of statistics. In the conference session a moderator asked "How many of you know someone in your department with cancer?" Most everyone in the room raised their hand. The moderator asked the crowd,"What does that tell you about cancer? Yet, there is very little data. There is no data for South Carolina. Carter Jones with the SC Fire Fighters Association explains, "We're trying to educate firefighters, when you go to the Doctor, not only list your profession as a truck driver or whomever, but also list that you are a firefighter so that we can begin capturing this type of data."
News 19 attempted to collect some data of our own. We reached out to all 93 fire departments in the Midlands asking them to self report the number of firefighters they had who had been diagnosed with cancer, age of diagnosis and years of service. Twenty of them responded. Two departments refused to participate in the study; Lexington County cited, Hippa violations for their reason for not participating. The Spokesperson for Columbia/Richland told us they would not participate because there is no connection between fighting fires and cancer. Of those reporting though, two areas stood out. One fire department in Orangeburg County, Canaan VFD, had four firefighters battling cancer. In Kershaw County there were five recent cases of firefighters with cancer. Four of them had colon cancer. Joel Mills is one of those. He was diagnosed 2014. He says he doesn't know if his 20 plus years fighting fires has anything to do with his cancer. But he says, there is no history of it in his family, and he's lived a healthy lifestyle. He tells News 19, "I was surprised that I had cancer because I didn't feel like I did anything that could cause cancer. I dont know what caused it, and nobody can tell me what caused it."
Meanwhile Mock and others are trying to spread the word on the importance of early detection. Mutt Bozard has been a volunter for 20 years in Clarendon County. He says, "The first year we had physicals we found four people with cancer and I was one of them."
Ells says, progress in research is being made. She says, " It's becoming technical to the point where we are connecting the cancer to the toxin or the carcenogen to the body organ. and its has taken the technology of the quipment itself to catch up."
But making the specific connection in firefighters is still difficult because of other environmental factors. DR. Scott Sommers is an oncologist at SC Oncology Center. He says the latest studies looked at 30,000 firefighters in five major cities in the United States. "There is clear research really now spanning decades, that firefighters are at an increased risk. A 5% increase risk is not a huge risk over the standard population when you calculate risks for everyone, but it is clearly increased."
And he says, the longer a firefighter serves, the higher the risk of cancer. He tells News 19, "Risk of cancer increase is very much coorelated to the number of fire runs a firefighter goes on. A firefighter that worked 10 years has a lot lower risk than one who worked 20."
Mutt Bozard says, "You've been fighting fire for 20 years and you've developed one of these types of cancer its hard to say you know fighting fires caused the cancer. So it is a major, major problem."
We now know some things firefighters did, or didn't do for many years, may be contributers. Mock explains what he did that he had no idea could affect his health, he says, "You fight the fire. If the gear isn't too bad I put it in the back of my car as its off gassing carcinogens and I'm breathing it all the time and then the next time I put it back on again and finally when it really gets bad I'd wash it."
We asked Joel Mills if he rode around with gear in his vehicle too, Mills said, "Yes I did, in the back seat of the truck."
Carter Jones tells News 19, "In May I'll have 50 years with the fire service, and for years it was almost a badge of honor that the dirtier your clothes, the dirtier your helmet, reflected that you were an aggressive fire fighter."
Now Mock and others are being aggressive about teaching firefighter safety when it comes to cancer. Mock travels around the country giving his presentation on the importance of protecting yourself. He says, "I'm trying to get the word out to people that you've got to decon your gear at the scene. Then get it washed as soon as possible."
Jones says "That brings problems, because the more you wash your gear, the gear begins to deteriorate, that requires new gear, increased budgets. But health is not an issue that we cannot ignore any longer and education is a key." They are encouraging departments to put the proper funds into fighting the risk of cancer as they do fighting the fires.
That education is Mocks Mission. He's hoping to save members of his firefighter family some of what he's gone through. He says, "I could tolerate that I got cancer, but when it came from my passion for firefighting, it was like somebody kicked me."
For more information on completed and current research on this topic, just go to the International Firefighters Cancer Foundation website. There they have protocol they've created for decontamination as well as other resources and legislation taking place around the country. Currently there is no legislation put forth in South Carolina regarding this topic.