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Firefighters raise awareness of cancer risks

Click to play video: 'Lethbridge firefighters raise awareness of cancer risks' Lethbridge firefighters raise awareness of cancer risks
Firefighters routinely battle burning buildings, but the danger continues after the flames are extinguished. January marks Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month in hopes education will help reduce the risks. Erik Bay reports. – Jan 18, 2022

Lethbridge firefighter union president Warren Nelson is no stranger to the dangers of his profession, but earning the title of ‘smoke eater’ can have long-term effects.

“Specifically here in Lethbridge, since 2003 we’ve actually had eight members who have died from an occupational cancer, stemming from brain, bladder and prostate cancers,” Nelson said.

According to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), 52 full-time Alberta firefighters have died from recognized occupational cancers in the last decade. That figure doesn’t account for others who have died of cancer, but weren’t covered by workers compensation board benefits.

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In a release, Alberta Fire Fighters Association (AFFA) president Matt Osborne called cancer “an epidemic in the fire service.”

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“It’s the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths among Alberta firefighters, as it is across Canada,” Osborne added.

But measures are being taken to improve the safety of those exposed to harmful carcinogens through prevention and early detection.

Read more: Lethbridge to join Red Deer, Calgary, Wood Buffalo in EMS dispatch complaint to Alberta ombudsman

“We do decontamination on-scene now,” Nelson said. “We have bags that we carry separate from our gear that has clean items that we can change into and get the carcinogens off our body.”

While protocols have improved since Nelson started his career nearly 25 years ago, he feels the toll is still too high and wants to shine a light on the occupation’s hazards.

“Recognize the sacrifice that these members have made, not just on the emergency scene, but also in their lives.”

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