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Silent Killer? Study Raises Questions On Firefighter Gear

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) -- As smoke, feared to be toxic, stains South Florida skies, Miami-Dade firefighters don traditional personal protective equipment to save their lives.

But CBS4 News has exclusively obtained and reviewed a just concluded study that some veteran firefighters say raises serious questions about the protection that gear offers when it comes to exposure to elements that could be linked to cancer.

"I feel it basically is confirming our fears on cancer in the fire service," says Keith Tyson, Firefighter Cancer Support Network Director for Florida, who calls the report eye opening.

"When you look at these types of pictures you start realizing that it is not protecting us 100 percent. Nothing will protect us one hundred percent. But this is frightening. This truly is frightening," says Tyson in reviewing images included in the January 7, 2015 Fluorescent Aerosol Screening Test, (FAST).

The test participant was sent into a chamber wearing what's described as clean but used protective gear but wearing a brand new hood. According to Jeffrey Stull of International Personnel Protections,Inc., for whom the report was prepared, the test was commissioned and paid for by the International Firefighters Association, the firefighter union.

For 30 minutes, the test participant was exposed to what's called nuisance dust, reportedly typical of what a firefighter would encounter in a home.

"Basically they created a smoke environment. They used a natural dust that was non toxic; however, they added a florescent dye to it." explained Tyson.

Click here to watch Michele Gillen's report. 

According to the report, at the conclusion of the test, when the test subject removed his gear it appeared that traces of the dust made it onto his skin- despite the presumed protective barrier of the hood.

"When you can show them a picture that this is what is getting through your gear, this is the potential issues that you are facing now. That makes it a whole different ball game now," claims Tyson.

According to the report, there were also apparent hot spots on the test participant's body where reportedly the elements came in contact with skin such as his stomach area. This is attributed to what's called a billowing effort, an upwind that seems to cross the barrier of the two piece suit.

CBS4 Chief Investigator Michele Gillen asked Tyson about his concerns over firefighters and cancer.

"Thyroid cancer was the number one cancer in Florida firefighters back in 2006 back when the study was done by University of Miami," revealed Tyson.

"And brain cancer accounts now to 17 percent of Miami-Dade Fire rescues cancer deaths. That is a horrible number. "

Gillen also met with Broward County Fire Chief in charge of health and safety, Todd Leduc. She asked him if he thought the hood could be the weakest link when it comes to safety gear.

"That's what we need to find out" said Leduc who is taking concerns over the risk of cancer so seriously his team just sent out three in service hoods to be tested at the same testing center. This test is being paid for by the Florida Cancer Support Network.

"Now we are starting to look and say what chemicals are captured and being trapped in this hood .. and what do we do when that happens," says Leduc.

His reaction to the chamber test results?

"On first blush as a firefighter and chief health safety officer, it says to me there are things we probably can be looking at and doing better," says Leduc.

The concern that lingers, he says, is the reality that each firefighter has only one set of gear, often having to jump into it time and time again - even in just one day with not enough time to clean it.

"Too many people think it is part of the job. We will die a hero's death. Dying of cancer is no hero's death. This is a long term illness that many people suffer through," says Tyson a retired firefighter and prostate cancer survivor.

"I don't want to see this continue. Will it change in my lifetime? Probably not. Can I make a difference. I see that happening already."

Meanwhile, fire veterans said their emphasis will be on cleaning the gear and efforts to get backup gear which they see as a question of money but potentially a question of health. A basic suit can cost an estimated $2,000. The hood alone is $26. Broward firefighters are now each being distributed a second hood.

CBS4 News reached out to a leading manufacturer of personal protection equipment who says that as an industry it has taken the initiative to find an improved solution to reduce firefighters exposure to harmful substances and high lights that the issue is broader than hoods.

Efforts include, they say in a statement shared with CBS4 News, optional designs and an emphasis on frequent cleanings.

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