SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — January is Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month, as first responders work to reduce health risks in a job that is inherently dangerous.
Firefighters work to protect others, but there comes a time when some of them need the help.
"When the doctor looks at you in the face, and they don't even really have to tell you the words, but you kind of know,” said San Diego Fire-Rescue Captain Kyle O’Neill.
O’Neill is describing when his extreme fatigue in 2016 ended up being testicular cancer.
“I was sick for a year entirely. I was off the job,” O’Neill said.
He's not alone. According to federal health agencies, compared to the general public, firefighters have increase in cancer diagnoses by 9% and cancer-related deaths by 14%.
“We're not just firefighters to each other. We're a family,” O’Neill said.
He served as the program manager for the department's Cancer Awareness and Prevention Program (CAPP) for about five years.
“If you look at engineered plywood and engineered types of materials that are used in building material, they're full of synthetics, glues [and] plastics,” O’Neill said. “They’re very toxic.”
He said at least 32 San Diego firefighters were diagnosed with cancer over the past five years. That's just the one they know about and not including those who retired.
“Due to the latency period of the cancer, 20 years later after an exposure, they're getting some form of cancer that's affecting them in their retirement year,” O’Neill said.
He showed ABC 10News around the Hillcrest station with improvements made in recent years.
O’Neill explained the vehicle exhaust extraction system. “They’re better at staying connected and they just seem to work better as a whole for keeping the exhaust out of the station compared to the old ones,” he said.
Around the station, there were visual reminders like “Clean Zones.”
“Essentially, we don’t want any fire department PPE going through this threshold here,” O’Neill said as he pointed to an the sleeping and eating area for firefighters.
In the laundry room, he said they try to keep turnouts in one washing machine and personal laundry in the other.
That is an improvement from when ABC 10News covered firefighter cancer risks in 2015, when at the time, only four stations had two sets of washers.
Now, a San Diego Fire spokesperson said every station has a washer specifically for personal protective equipment. Remodeled and newer stations have two types of washers with the goal to get them in all the stations.
O’Neill said the department also uses a greener and safer version of cleaning the station through a super concentrate cleaning system.
Mike Cornett also works in the department, and said cancer threats are more talked about now than whe he started in the fire service.
“[It’s in] the front of everybody’s minds and thought processes,” Cornett said.
Firefighter health is not only important for him, but also his older sister.
Tara Cornett founded Flame Decon, which specializes in soaps and body wash to remove carcinogens. Her products are made of a proprietary blend includes activated charcoal.
At first, her brother was skeptical.
“She came to me and told me she wanted to make soap for firefighters… I told her that was probably a bad idea,” Mike Cornett said.
But after trying the product, he now uses it all the time.
When asked how she knows the product works, Tara Cornett said she has done testing and worked with scientists to develop the cleaning products.
“Activated charcoal is like… a sponge. It's kind of a combination between a sponge and a magnet,” she said. “You get the activated charcoal close to the carcinogen, and it magnetizes [and] kind of sucks it in.”
Health is important to her after their dad died from a heart attack when she and Mike were in their early twenties.
“I can't have that happen to my brother,” Tara Cornett said. “These risks are too high with firefighters, and he has babies now.
Studies continue into the long-term health effectsof firefighters.
“We're here to support the public every day. We want to be here to protect you, but we also want to be healthy in our career and in our retirement,” O’Neill added.