WMBF Investigates: From fighting fires to fighting cancer - WMBFNews.com, Myrtle Beach/Florence SC, Weather

WMBF Investigates: From fighting fires to fighting cancer

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - “Firefighter” and “cancer” - the two words are fatally intertwined. It's a hidden risk that can be more dangerous than the fires these men and women work to extinguish, because there's little to no protection from cancer.

It doesn't matter what county, city, or neighborhood you live in. If your house is on fire, crews will not think twice about doing whatever it takes to save you and your property. But every moment firefighters are in those toxic fumes, a silent killer is attacking.

This story is not about one survivor, but every firefighter who contracts a deadly disease simply because of what they do for a living.

Back at the firehouse, Lt. Jeremy Albornoz and his crew are safe from the flames, but the dangers of their job don't end when the fire is out.

“Most dangers come, cancer is just one of them,” Lt. Albornoz says. “I don't think that that's any different than any of the other dangers. It's just more long-term and it sneaks up on ya. At least on the street you can hopefully see if a car is coming. But this one just kind of sneaks up on ya.”

Lt. Albornoz is a 10-year veteran of Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue and a cancer survivor. In the fire service, it is understood that being burned isn't the only risk they take.

“There is definitely a hidden danger,” says Seth Holzopfel, local IAFF Union President. “One that is not seen in firefighting is that the chemicals that are inside a building that burn. More traditional homes back in the 70s and 60s were made of wood products. And now it's hydrocarbon and plastic products. The hidden danger is not only are we faced with the heat, but we are faced with the toxic chemicals that are given off by the products of their combustion.”

These toxic chemicals absorb into a firefighter's skin at very high rates. When the skin heats up, it starts absorbing toxins like a sponge.

“A firefighter's turnout gear protects them from the heat in the fire,” Holzopfel says. “And they are more advanced, allowing us to get deeper into the fire these days than we did in the past. But it's not a level-A hazmat suit or a hazmat suit you would see at a chemical plant.”

Gear has to be flexible so a firefighter can move and react quickly, but that flexibility allows for toxic chemicals to seep in, making a firefighter more vulnerable to microscopic attack.

“Now, the studies are coming out where it's actually in the creases, or the breaks in between the gloves and the jacket, the boots, around your neck,” Lt. Albornoz says. “So I think, those are just new studies that are coming out that people either aren't listening to yet or just haven't heard yet.”

Lt. Albornoz learned the hard way. “I started feeling a lump right here,” he says, pointing to his neck.

A biopsy showed it was just an infection, but after 11 days of antibiotics, his neck still swelling, doctors cut it open. Last September, he got the news: Jeremy was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma at just 40 years old.

“It's very aggressive,” Lt. Albornoz says. “But if you catch it in time, it's curable.”

The best research shows, firefighters are 50 percent more likely to get this type of cancer than other people. Jeremy felt he had to beat it because his wife Christine was pregnant with their first child.

“I tried to work as much as I can to get my mind off of it,” Lt. Jeremy Albornoz says. “But, it was just get better so we can, you know, I was going to have a kid. So, I just had to plow through it.” He underwent three rounds of chemo, 20 rounds of radiation, targeting two tumors.

All the while, Jeremy continued to work, fighting fires in between radiation treatments. On January 20, he was given the all-clear by doctors, and has since been promoted to lieutenant.

But now that Jeremy has had one type of cancer, studies show it is very likely he will get cancer again.

“Worry about what you can fix,” Lt. Albornoz advises. “You can't do anything about it, so I'll worry about if it hits me again. That's kind of the way I look at it. If it comes back, I'll have to deal with it then, otherwise I'm not going to let it ruin my life just because I had it once.”

There is movement in Columbia to create a bill that would help cover medical costs, like Jeremy's. The debate is around whether it's firefighting that causes these cancers. But study after study links the two, and this will be the ammunition firefighters will take to state legislators.

In fact, we'll talk to a state lawmaker next week to ask why something hasn't been done already to protect those, who protect us.

Stay tuned to WMBF News for the next part of this special investigative report.

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