Cindy Ell of DeLand knew years ago that besides the obvious dangers firefighters faced, a less obvious one was the cancer-causing chemicals they were exposed to on a regular basis that, in many cases, ultimately took their lives.
The nonprofit, all volunteer Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation was formed in 2004 in Anne Arundel County, Md., under Ms. Ell's leadership to create awareness and advocacy for firefighters and their families.
Now retired, she worked for years as a firefighter, paramedic and union representative for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department. She also worked in critical care at Johns Hopkins Hospital, allowing her to consult with a variety of medical and scientific professionals for research, which she cataloged in her spare time.
“I had been tracking the toxins for 28 years,” Ms. Ell said. “When I realized we were exposed, I started digging. The clothing and firefighter gear soaked in the oil was transported home, thus extending the chemical exposures to family members. A pediatric cancer cluster also grew behind the training center in a residential area and questions of connection continued to mount.
A small group of firefighters and family members, concerned about the growing number of cancer cases among adults and children, started the foundation.
“We’ve learned a lot from 911 and the chemical latencies,” Ms. Ell said. “As a foundation, we started out connecting the chemicals, the cancers and the organs in the body. Now we have to be more aggressive in medical monitoring.”
Cancer among fire fighters is 9 percent higher than the general population and death from cancer is 14 percent higher, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
It’s not uncommon for firefighters to have more than one primary cancer, Ms. Ell said. “We don’t have profit motives for what we do, we just want people to live.
“For firefighters, it’s personal responsibility,” she said. “They are obviously committed to serving their communities, they need to be committed to their own health as well.”
Firefighters' medical exams must include checking for chemical exposure. Citizens need to be aware of fiscal issues keeping firefighters from getting better equipment.
Ms. Ell established a database to track illness trends with the help of Attorney Kenneth Berman. The information supported a Johns Hopkins Firefighter Cancer Study, completed by Dr. Jonathon Samet, and continues to be cited for firefighter workers compensation cases in the United States.
A 2006 Washington Post article nicknamed Ms. Ell the “Erin Brockovich of Anne Arundel firefighters.”
The foundation is now based in DeLand, but has a presence throughout the United States and Australia, and several other countries. It continues its work to extinguish firefighter cancer throughout the world by providing educational programs, resources, research and occupational disease and cancer navigation to individuals and families of the fire service.
In-house specialty teams continue to answer the growing questions of how to reduce toxin and carcinogenic exposures with a goal of reducing cancer. The hazardous materials zoning of a fire station, the fire ground and training facilities are some of their visionary work. Almost a decade of study of practices of fire investigators have led to the creation of new best practices documents and health recommendations for that segment plagued by cancer.
The team regularly consults on new and improved technologies as well as worker compensation issues to support better health and safety of first responders.
Best practices suggested by FFCF include contain contaminated gear on scene (don’t relocate the hazard), bag contaminated gear in 6 mil plastic, double bag, allow only clean gear in apparatus cabs, and fully decontaminate interior of apparatus monthly. Fire gear and building themselves, even fire stations and fire trucks, may be part of the problem, harboring cancer-causing chemicals.
Business partners have emerged, such as firefighter Chad Wenzel, who owns Aegis Fire Gear. His company has developed particulate protective undergarments for firefighters. Fire-Tec Inc. is another company with which Ms. Ell works closely.
Cancer struck personally for Ms. Ell in 2005 when she was diagnosed with a melanoma, which makes her research and passion all the timelier as she continues to have ongoing biopsies.
The foundation seeks to help all firefighters.
Jeremy McKay, the husband of Tanya McKay, a regional director for First Choice living benefits, is a Clay County firefighter.
At 44, he is living with Stage 4 cancer.
“Ninety days prior to his (cancer) diagnosis, he had a county issued life scan. They detected nothing,” Ms. McKay said. “Ninety days later he was told he was terminal.”
While no connection has been discovered linking his job to his cancer, Ms. McKay has questions. “I just know my husband is a firefighter and that he has cancer,” she said.
The foundation has the information she needs to get her questions answered.
The foundation services as a clearinghouse for information and technology, and mainly asks, “Why.”
“They share a common belief that we cannot change the chemicals and practices of the past, but we have the power and knowledge to change our future,” Ms. Ell said. “We are getting ready to launch a brand-new educational arm, the first firefighter cancer advocate certificate program in the country is rolling out in the next two months. The Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation is working to extinguish firefighter cancer and celebrate the retirement of those of service. Because we know more, more needs to change.”
For more information, visit ffcancer.org or call (866) 411-3323.