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Boston Fire Department Making Firefighters Aware Of Cancer Risks

BOSTON (CBS) - Firefighters know theirs is a dangerous profession. But the Boston Fire Department is fighting back against a silent killer within their ranks. Cancer.

"We have a new cancer diagnosis every two-and-a-half weeks", said Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn. It's a sobering statistic that the department is trying to change and one Kevin McNiff is living every day.

McNiff was diagnosed with kidney cancer more than a year ago. Since then, the cancer has spread. "I learned that it's metastasized to my lungs, both lungs. It's incurable," he said.

McNiff is now sharing his story in a video released by the Boston Fire Department. It features photos of the 160 Boston Firefighters who have died from cancer since 1990. It is designed to raise awareness about research suggesting a link between cancer and toxic fumes created by burning flame retardants inside buildings.

Boston Fire Cancer Video
Firefighters look at photos of the 160 Boston Firefighters who have died from cancer since 1990. (Image credit: Boston Fire)

In addition to the emotional video, Finn is taking steps to help protect the men and women of the department, starting with caring for bunker gear, those heavy suits firefighters wear to protect themselves.

Experts have found that those suits can also pose a danger.

Boston Firefighter Cancer
Carcinogens get embedded in the fabric of firefighters' gear. (WBZ-TV)

"Toxins and carcinogens get embedded in the fabric, so they need to be washed," Finn said.

That is easier said than done. Washing bunker gear requires an industrial size washing machine. Finn is working on getting more, but right now less than half of the stations have one.

Boston Firefighter Cancer
Bunker gear requires an industrial size washing machine. (WBZ-TV)

That means firefighters have to send them out to be cleaned, which takes a couple of days. While firefighters all have two sets of gear, it can still be an inconvenience to make sure there is always a clean one ready to go.

Finn is also urging his men and women to wear their air masks whenever possible. Firefighters have long resisted wearing the tanks because of their weight and bulk, but Finn says that is an attitude that needs to change. In the video he urged members to think about their families before taking them off. He also said the department is testing new, longer lasting tanks that will offer more protection.

There are also more changes coming down the road.

"We are looking at tactically changing the way we are going to fight fires. There will be less exposure," Finn said.

Even though those changes are too late for McNiff, he has no regrets.

"I knew what it was getting into, but the risk was worth it. I love the job," he said.

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