Firefighters more likely to get cancer - WNEM TV 5

Firefighters more likely to get cancer

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Firefighters put their lives on the line every day to protect lives and property, but the true cost of their jobs could appear years later. 

A new study shows firefighters have higher rates of cancer.

"The hardest part for me was going home and having to tell my wife and kids that I had cancer," Rodney Sweet said.

Sweet is battling melanoma. The former Midland firefighter had to resign after his condition claimed part of his thumb.

"It was tough," Sweet said.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control, firefighters are twice as likely to get cancer compared to the average person. Sweet, who doesn't smoke, agrees, believing his illness is a by-product of the job.

"Everything's made out of upholstery, made out of hydro-carbons, it's made out of plastic. So there's a lot more toxicity in the air. Even now when we're doing overhaul it's getting on your gear, it's getting on your hands, you're taking it back to the station. It's just hard to get it off your gear and get it off of you after a fire," Sweet said.

In Saginaw cancer is a major concern as well. TV5 has learned of 15 firefighters who have had the disease over the last 10 years, and some of those firefighters have passed away.

"I've gone to funerals with other fire departments as well that have young 20, 30, 40-year-olds, you know, with cancer," Lt. Aileen Pettinger said.

Pettinger has been stopping flames for 17 years. She said her department tries to reduce exposure to truck exhaust, thoroughly clean their uniforms, and stay in tip-top shape. But with all the hidden dangers lurking on every call, Pettinger admits she gets nervous a lot.

"It's just really like a game of Russian roulette. You don't know. It could happen to you," Pettinger said.

Despite the risks, Pettinger said she won't stop doing the job she loves. Sweet agrees, saying he has no regrets after fighting fires for 21 years.

"It's a career that you love. It's a career that's very rewarding and it's just a chance you take," Sweet said.

State lawmakers are considering a bill that would classify cancer as a personal injury for non-smoking firefighters. 

If passed, it would allow those firefighters with cancer to collect worker's compensation. 

Right now 38 other states have this measure in place.

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