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KCBS Cover Story: San Francisco Firefighters Battling Alarming Cancer Rate

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A San Francisco Fire Department fire engine. (CBS)

A San Francisco Fire Department fire engine. (CBS)

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SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) — Flames and smoke are the visible threat but cancer is a silent killer that is claiming the lives of firefighters.

Earlier this week, 63-year-old Daniel Armenta, a 31-year veteran of the San Francisco Fire Department, died from bladder cancer and several of his colleagues at Station 1 have also battled the disease.

“It’s been the last 12 years, there’s been five firefighters, I’m one of them, that had transitional cell carcinoma in my kidney,” President of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation Tony Stefani said.

Stefani and Armenta battled both fires and cancer together.

“We grew up in the Bayview District together in San Francisco, went to grammar school together, and we’ve been friends for life,” he said.

The foundation is lobbying to eliminate certain chemicals, and to revise the overhaul process after a fire.

“We’ve been wearing air tanks and air masks for many years now, and the cancer rate keeps going up, and the researching is leading to that these carcinogenic chemicals are coming into our skin—into our mucous membranes—while we’re fighting a fire. So we don’t know what to do right now. We’re at a loss,” Firefighter Union President Lt. Tom O’Connor said.

A recent study by the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reviewed medical records of 30,000 firefighters going back 60 years in Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco.

The study confirmed a higher rate of cancers among all firefighters than the national average—especially kidney, bladder and brain cancer in San Francisco.

“We’re burying too many guys with their boots off—too many guys who died from job-related cancers. But they didn’t die because of a ‘hero’s death.’ They died in a hospital or hospice,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor said women firefighters are also suffering.

“Woman are six times the national average of coming down with breast cancer for a firefighter,” he said.

For now, lobbying efforts continue to eliminate certain chemicals and to revise the overhaul process after a fire, when toxic gases can get trapped in structures.

A cancer screening for firefighters is scheduled for January.

Meanwhile, the fire department plans to honor Armenta.

“It’s a tragedy for the whole fire department family,” Captain Jeff Covitz said.

“There will be funeral arrangements and memorial services forthcoming that will be announced at a later date,” he said.

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

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