Concord Monitor – To eradicate cancer, firefighters in New Hampshire undergo regular screenings

With recently approved funding from the city, the Concord Fire Department will be among the first in the country to receive structural equipment, worn here by firefighter Ian Gill, that is free of PFAS chemicals.
Catherine McLaughlin

One hundred New Hampshire firefighters will be screened for cancer this week at the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire convention. This is the start of efforts to develop long-term, regular testing across the country.

According to the International Association of Firefighters, cancer is now the leading cause of death in the line of duty – accounting for more than 70% of all firefighter deaths in North America in 2023. Efforts to combat this in New Hampshire are two-pronged: prevention and early detection, said union President Brian Ryll. A bipartisan bill moving smoothly through the Legislature this year would fund a year-long program aimed at screening all of the Granite State's nearly 4,000 active firefighters for cancer. Ryll said the results of this pilot will inform his organization's efforts to establish a regular testing program. This week's kickoff is just the first step.

“We’re trying to drive home the importance of early detection,” Ryll said. “This has the potential to save lives.”

Because of the job's risk factors, a firefighter's cancer diagnosis is assumed to be work-related unless it can be clearly ruled out, Ryll said. As cancer rates have soared, his organization has worked to educate fighters on how to limit their exposure to the smoke and chemicals that endanger them. But for those who do get sick, it's important to catch it early.

As the audit legislation moves through the House, the union organized the screening event at its convention on Tuesday and Wednesday to show its support and support for the initiative if federal funding comes through.

It's not feasible to test every firefighter statewide every year, but the one-year view will illustrate which demographics – including age and years in the job – should be considered in annual testing, Ryll said.

The effort will also mean diagnostics.

“I would like to check 4,000 firefighters in New Hampshire and get no positive results. But I’m pretty sure that won’t be the case,” Ryll said. “The next best thing is checking members and saving lives – if we can save just one, the whole thing is worth it.”

A fundraiser raised $175,000 – supplemented by $50,000 from American Rescue Plan money and Service Credit Union donations – to help pay for demonstrations at the group's biennial convention next week. The bill is currently awaiting passage in the House of Representatives and would provide $5 million for the nationwide screenings.

Ryll called the initiative “groundbreaking” and said few states have mandated regular cancer screenings for active and retired firefighters. In addition to Concord's success in becoming the first city in the country to receive PFAS-free equipment, this means the state is taking big first steps toward preventing and treating cancer among its first responders.

Anna Harden

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