SPECIAL REPORT: Congress to vote on national registry that would track cancer among firefighters

Congress to vote on national registry that would track cancer among firefighters

Congress is now considering whether to create a national firefighter cancer registry.

This, after a study done by the CDC reveals, firefighters have a 14% higher risk of dying from certain types of cancer than the average American. Those include digestive, respiratory and brain cancers.

Fire departments across the country believe the problem lies in the new types of fires they battle and how they clean up the mess, afterward.

News 5's Tiana Bohner talked to local firefighters and their families about the danger. She has this special report.

Tennessee Congressman Phil Roe said he was among the House majority to support the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act, in September. It now faces the Senate for approval.

Local firefighters said this is a big step to tracking and raising awareness of this deadly trend.

When the call comes in and the alarm goes off, volunteers at Avoca's fire department are ready and out the door in minutes.

Responding to medical calls, rescues and fires, these firefighters are prepared for almost any type of danger.

"We are exposed to things nobody else is," chief David Taylor said. But there may be a silent danger that's killing them.

"Cancer is not a good word. I hate that word," Melissa Morrell said. Her husband, Mike 'Moe' Morrell, died after battling brain cancer.

"If you come down with cancer, pretty much, you can trace that back to your career in the fire department," Taylor said.

Taylor added talk of the deadly link started about a decade ago. But he didn't take a hard look at the numbers until they lost one of their own.

'Moe' Morrell served as a volunteer firefighter for 32 years.

"He had a passion for firefighting. It's one that is hard to explain," his wife said. "I would get up and help him get his shoes on in the middle of the night. He'd kiss me good bye and I'd lay in bed and worry about when he would come home."

But in 2015, she got even more concerning news: Moe's brain cancer diagnosis.

"To me, in my mind, he could do anything, his wife said. "There was no way he had tumors in his brain. There's no way."

That's when Melissa said a doctor suggested it could be related to his work as a firefighter.

"That has to has played a role in his cancer," she said. "It has to. It has to have."

"We've all been exposed to the same thing, so we don't know what's ticking," Taylor said.

Chief Taylor said a reason for this: firefighters deal with new man-made materials that become toxic in a fire.

"Foam rubber: when it burns produces cyanide gas," he said. "So things like that, we've been exposed to and didn't know."

So now his department is taking more steps to protect their health.

"We tell our guys, 'Go straight home, take a shower, wash your hair, clean everything,'" Taylor said.

Soot is no longer considered a badge of honor. Taylor said each firefighter is given two sets of gear, so that they will always have a clean one. And they're told to keep their oxygen masks on longer.

"What we're finding is even long after the fire has been extinguished, there's still smoldering debris. And that's what is most toxic," Taylor said.

The fire chief hopes these changes save lives. He said there's not a single day, he doesn't think about Moe and his own possible health risks.

"Whatever he was exposed to, I was exposed to," Taylor said."So it's always in the back of my mind."

But Melissa believes nothing - not even cancer - could have stopped her husband from running toward every fire.

"I think if Michael had known he was going to die from cancer, he would've still done it."

If you are an active or retired firefighter and worried about your health, experts suggest sharing your work history with your doctor. That way they know about any possible job-related risks.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off