ST. LOUIS — After losing four firefighters to aggressive forms of cancer in the past year, the St. Louis Fire Department is making changes aimed at reducing the risk caused by frequent exposure to carcinogens.

Chief Dennis Jenkerson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the deaths prompted the department to take a close look at literature related to firefighters and cancer.

Gear blackened from fires is no longer considered a badge of honor. Studies show that firefighters are at increased risk for some cancers due to carcinogens they face in battling fires.

Now, decontamination begins immediately after a fire. Firefighters are doused with water while in their gear in an effort to get rid of particles containing carcinogens. They use wipes on their hands, face and neck.

Studies have found a correlation between time spent at fires and an increased rate of lung cancers and related deaths. A series of studies that analyzed the health records of nearly 30,000 firefighters in three major metropolitan areas over a 60-year period also found that the risk of leukemia increased with the number of fire runs.

St. Louis joins other departments across the country in making procedural changes as a result of the increased awareness about health concerns.

“Until the fire department changes the culture of how we act after a fire has been put out, we weren’t going to affect this, I thought, at a very dramatic rate,” Jenkerson said. “That’s why it was important to start the process within ourselves.”

The changes are costly. Because of the need to wash gear, all firefighters are supposed to have two sets of gear. The cost for a new set for each firefighter is about $1,500.

So far, only about one-third of St. Louis’ 600 firefighters have a second set of gear.

The department is also stressing preventive care. Firefighters who go for an annual checkup are told to take a note explaining the elevated risks they face when it comes to certain cancers. The note encourages screenings at earlier ages for some cancers. Colonoscopies are encouraged starting at age 40 — 10 years earlier than the typical recommended age of 50 for colon cancer screenings.

Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

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