SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — At San Francisco Fire Station 7 on Folsom Street, cancer prevention sounds a lot like a washing machine.

“Your Mom was right, you need to be clean,” says Adam Wood of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation.

It’s easy to look at the plumes of billowing black smoke from a massive fire and know that they aren’t healthy. While firefighters are putting out flames, priority on is protection from the heat and those flames. That’s what their turnouts are for.

“They’re doing their job, they’re keeping us from getting overheated and burned, but while we’re in the fire environment, they’re soaking up all the toxins that are in the smoke and the heated gases,” says Wood.

According to the International Association of Firefighters, 63 percent of firefighters will get cancer at some point.

No fire is the same and rarely are they clean. There’s asbestos in old buildings, plastics inside homes, cars that catch fire in garages that all turn into a toxic soup covered in water and released in smoke. It’s believed the toxins from years of putting out flames are soaking into the turnout’s fireproof fabric and slowly leaching into their skin.

“It’s kind of in the nature of the firefighter makeup to think of yourself as invincible – you go through these life threatening situations over and over again and come out, unscathed, you think,” says Wood.

Three years ago, to try and reduce cancer rates, the San Francisco Fire Department introduced seven extractors – basically washing machines on steroids to clean any potential carcinogens out the of the turnouts.

They were a hit.

“We were having seven machines out 45 stations. So, you were having members that were driving to these seven stations, just to get their turnouts clean, because nobody wants to get cancer. Nobody wants to retire and have cancer,” says San Francisco Fire Department Public Information Officer Jonathan Baxter.

The fire department also issued two sets of $1500 turnouts. Firefighters can clean the dirty set in a 47 minute cycle and have another set to wear to the next call – while the wet ones drip dry.

SFFD recently purchased enough extractors to put in every fire station in the city.

Comments (8)
  1. For this story and cancer study to be valid there needs to be clarification on the types of cancer the firefighters are getting. Only cancers directly related to smoke inhalation should be counted. Cancers such as prostate cancer could not be directly related to smoke, also lung and oral cancers for firefighters that smoke or use tobacco products should not be counted.
    While firefighter safety is a must, health studies must be accurate for them to be valid.

    1. Pearse M says:

      Keep in mind it’s not only the smoke it’s also the various chemicals from the various plastics, cleaning products, maintenance products, and so on. Those toxins produced from those chemicals will get into the turnout gear (the protective apparel that fire fighters wear) and then get transferred over to the fire fighter via absorption through the skin just from wearing it or donning and doffing (putting on and taking off) the turnout gear. So it’s not just the smoke that is causing the cancer.

  2. Pearse M says:

    I spent time as a Fire Fighter with Warranton Volunteer Fire and Rescue a few years back and we had one of those machines for our turn out gear. Part of the problem is when you have an entire station with turn out gear that needs to be washed. In reality I’d say each station really needs 2 or three to handle the load of a full crew. Now don’t get me wrong Warranton we’d get calls in which our Engine/Wagon, Tower, Tanker (Tender for west coast), and Rescue would all be sent out to. I understand that not all stations are that big and have a total of 7 rigs in the bay. Either way if you have just a engine and an ariel unit thats about 8 to 12 fire fighters. so thats roughly about 8 to 12 hours. Now there are also Volunteer stations that the Volunteers need to buy their own turn out gear because that particular station is so small and the area doesn’t have the funds to get turn out gear for them. So usually in those kinds of situations you find that all that station can afford is the rigs themselves as well as the gear that is needed on those rigs for the various calls they run. So in those cases those stations can’t afford to buy a machine like that and they don’t necessarily have any where to put one. My question at that point is what are you going to do for stations like that? Is the company just going to donate one to those stations?

  3. Diane Cotter says:

    The long overlooked discussion of ‘chemical additives’ used to in manufacturing the fabrics of PPE is finally being discussed. PFOA was found as a ‘by product of production’. These manufacturers knew of this and remained silent. Although dismissed by the garment manufacturers as ‘trace amounts’ we discovered in January 2018 what a ‘trace amount’ meant to a manufacturer. We tested a set of 2004 new, never worn structural ppe. The amounts of PFOA and PFNA were tens of thousands of times the MRL for PFOA in water. PFOA is a known carcinogen linked to testicular cancer, kidney cancer, prostate cancer, NHL, liver cancer….

    Professor Grahm Peaslee of Notre Dame is now testing 20 years worth of new, never worn PPE and decommissioned PPE. His initial project is focused on the PFAS chemicals used to make gear water resistant.