New report says firefighters are getting cancer and PTSD at alarming rates

New report says firefighters are getting cancer and PTSD at alarming rates

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - For firefighters, it is not just the smoke and flames that put them in danger.

These days there are hidden health hazards that are burning through departments locally, across the state and nationally.

Cancer and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are taking the lives of the men and women who protect residents at an alarming rate. They are problems that officials said can no longer be ignored.

"We've got to admit that there's a problem," Horry County Fire Capt. Charlie Nash said.

He knows that problem all too well. Last year, Nash was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and he believes his illness could be directly linked to his job.

"We can't say it's a coincidence anymore," Nash said. "Since I was diagnosed, I was able to network with others, and just in our department last year there were two people, myself and another gentleman, with the same type of cancer. The numbers are adding up. There are firefighter-specific cancers."

A report released last month by the International Association of Firefighters said that today's fires burn hotter and faster than ever. With homes and furniture being built out of plastics and more synthetic materials, the smoke contains more toxic chemicals.

"It's testicular cancers, bladder cancers, lymphomas, throat cancers and brain cancers," Nash said. "What we are finding out is the areas where we lose heat and sweat the most - around your neck, your head, under your arms and your groin area - is where firefighters are getting the cancer."

According to the IAFF, the No. 1 cause of death among firefighters is not from the fire itself, but those occupational exposures to toxins.

"For us to get an alarming rate of cancer being as healthy as we are, that in itself is a testimony that there is something going on with this job and the current environment that we are working with that's giving us these diseases," Nash said.

However, it is not just cancer that these men and women in red are coming down with. The prolonged and regular exposure to traumatic scenes are triggering PTSD at rates similar to those found in military service members returning from combat, according to the IAFF.

"Unlike the normal public, we see this over and over again day-to-day," said IAFF Local 4614 President Seth Holzopfel. "It's like a glass. Eventually it's going to fill up and overflow."

According to a 2015 study from Florida State University, nearly half of the firefighters surveyed had thought about suicide, 19.2 percent had suicide plans and 15.5 percent had made suicide attempts.

"These firefighters have gotten PTSD from their job and it should be treated as that," Holzopfel said.

Groups like the IAFF want to see legislation that will not only recognize that PTSD and cancer are directly linked to jobs in the fire service, but can also get these men and women the help they need.

Right now, South Carolina is one of many states that have no presumptive disability laws on the books according to the IAFF.

"You've got to have a piece of legislation that will treat them, get them the medication, give them the care and get them back on the job," Holzopfel said. "If we're not getting them back on the job, we're wasting money."

The IAFF wants to see fire departments, elected officials and communities come together to address these problems. Residents are asked to contact their local lawmakers, especially at the state level.

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