By Elizabeth Cook

LIVERMORE (KPIX 5) – Firefighters are a tight-knit family, and when they lose one of their own, they come together for support and comfort. That is what happened in Livermore and Pleasanton this month, when a 48-year old firefighter died from what has become an all too common work-related illness.

All firefighters ride into danger every day. Ben Plake, a 27 year veteran of the Livermore Pleasanton Fire Department, knows the risk. “You go do what you are trained and paid to do,” he said.

Flames and smoke are the obvious threats. But another more silent killer, cancer, just took the life of Ben’s firefighting partner of 17 years, Captain Paul Chenkovich. “It’s hard to explain unless you are doing the job but it just puts a bond with all of us over the years,” Plake told KPIX 5.

While standing an honorary 24-hour watch over Paul’s body, many thoughts went through Ben’s mind. “It used to be the biggest thing you were concerned about were fires. Now it’s the cancer,” he said.

Cancer is such a known threat to firefighters that in California it is treated as a workers’ comp related illness. Now that threat is confirmed by a just-released study, the biggest of its kind.

Researchers with the National Institutes of Safety and Health looked at the medical records of 30,000 firefighters going back 60 years in three cities: Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco.

UC Davis professor Jay Beaumont is one of the study’s researchers. “It’s a significant risk,” he told KPIX 5. “You can imagine the smoldering rubble of a building, all the different chemicals that are given off.”

Synthetic foam stuffing in couches, wood preservatives in tables and chairs, fire retardants in curtains and upholstery, and asbestos in older structures, all produce known carcinogens when they burn.

Researchers found high instances of cancers of the respiratory and digestive systems and brain cancer, which is what Captain Chenkovich died of. “What we found in San Francisco firefighters was that the risk of brain cancer was roughly doubled,” Beaumont told KPIX 5.

Chief Jim Miguel of the Livermore Pleasanton Fire Department said it has been a wakeup call. “Captain Chenkovich was a friend to all, very good at his job, a triathlete, with a beautiful young family, so the organization has had a hard time with this,” he said.

Miguel said new preventive practices, such as air monitoring after a fire is out, have made a big difference. “It’s about the products of combustion being eliminated before we take off our masks and breathe,” he said.

His firefighters now wash equipment and turnout gear after every fire. And when an engine gears up to leave the firehouse, cancer-causing diesel fumes are exhausted through a hose.

For now though, it’s all about Captain Chenkovich. “We carried him through Livermore. There were probably 30 to 40 emergency vehicles in the procession, 2,000 people along the procession route that were there with American flags. It has certainly, certainly brought us together as a family,” he said.

The cancer study is now entering its second phase. Researchers are gathering employment records from the three fire departments, to piece together more information on exposures and cancer rates.

Meanwhile in Livermore, each firefighter received a medallion to remember Captain Chenkovich. His number, 120, has been retired, so no one else will ever have it.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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