ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Exposure to carcinogens while working fires has prompted sweeping safety changes at the Orange County Fire Department, according to Chief Otto Drozd.
Drozd, a longtime advocate for safety, told News 6 the cancer risk has become part of the job for first responders with 61 percent of all line-of-duty deaths between January 2002 and March 2017 attributed to cancer.
“It used to be traumatic deaths, a building collapse, (or) actual fire itself," Drozd told News 6. “What we’re finding is more and more firefighters are dying from cancer than any other cause within our industry.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, firefighters have a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population.
Orange County Fire and Rescue launched changes with the help of a $1.1 million FEMA grant program.
Drozd said the materials used in buildings today expose firefighters to contaminants that can cause cancer.
Researchers have found that the cancers mostly responsible for the higher risk faced by firefighters include lung, mesothelioma, esophageal, large intestine and kidney.
Still, the cancers diagnosed from exposure to the smoke and chemicals can vary.
Lt. James Kelley of the Ocoee Fire Department lost his fight with thyroid cancer in February.
His wife Charlene Kelley said she didn’t think the cancer was connected with the job.
“Not at first, but he did," Kelley said. “I didn’t know much about that kind of cancer, but he thought it was from chemicals on the helmet straps.”
Her husband discovered a lump on his throat but didn’t think anything of it, she said, until a fellow firefighter passed from thyroid cancer.
His doctor confirmed it was thyroid cancer.
Kelley had surgery in 2016 and he died Feb. 4.
Drozd will be part of a special town hall meeting to discuss the cancer issue and the need for legislation to provide benefits for firefighters diagnosed with cancer.
Forty-three states already have cancer presumptive benefits.
The meeting is scheduled for Thursday at the Valencia College West campus at 1800 S. Kirkman Road,
Orlando. The meeting will be held in the Health Services building.