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High Cancer Risk A Fatal Job Hazard For Firefighters

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- At San Francisco Fire Station 7 on Folsom Street, cancer prevention sounds a lot like a washing machine.

"Your Mom was right, you need to be clean," says Adam Wood of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation.

It's easy to look at the plumes of billowing black smoke from a massive fire and know that they aren't healthy. While firefighters are putting out flames, priority on is protection from the heat and those flames. That's what their turnouts are for.

"They're doing their job, they're keeping us from getting overheated and burned, but while we're in the fire environment, they're soaking up all the toxins that are in the smoke and the heated gases," says Wood.

According to the International Association of Firefighters, 63 percent of firefighters will get cancer at some point.

No fire is the same and rarely are they clean. There's asbestos in old buildings, plastics inside homes, cars that catch fire in garages that all turn into a toxic soup covered in water and released in smoke. It's believed the toxins from years of putting out flames are soaking into the turnout's fireproof fabric and slowly leaching into their skin.

"It's kind of in the nature of the firefighter makeup to think of yourself as invincible - you go through these life threatening situations over and over again and come out, unscathed, you think," says Wood.

Three years ago, to try and reduce cancer rates, the San Francisco Fire Department introduced seven extractors – basically washing machines on steroids to clean any potential carcinogens out the of the turnouts.

They were a hit.

"We were having seven machines out 45 stations. So, you were having members that were driving to these seven stations, just to get their turnouts clean, because nobody wants to get cancer. Nobody wants to retire and have cancer," says San Francisco Fire Department Public Information Officer Jonathan Baxter.

The fire department also issued two sets of $1500 turnouts. Firefighters can clean the dirty set in a 47 minute cycle and have another set to wear to the next call – while the wet ones drip dry.

SFFD recently purchased enough extractors to put in every fire station in the city.

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