“It’s more dangerous, in my opinion, than going in and having a roof collapse on me,” said Wentzville Fire Captain David Marlo.
Marlo has been working to protect his men and women.
“Firefighters need to start thinking of themselves as a human sponge,” Marlo said.
He said they absorb toxins from fires that burn more plastics, foams, and coatings than ever before.
A study by the Firefighter Cancer Support Network found “cancer is the most dangerous and unrecognized threat.” Toxins in the smoke not only enter through the lungs, but also through skin pores. The study found a 400 percent increase in absorption for every five-degree increase in skin temperature.
“It’s a real killer for our firefighters,” Marlo said.
The neighboring Cottleville Fire Protection District recently lost two of its 40 firefighters to cancer. Captains James McNamara and Michael Boehle are memorialized on the fire house wall.
Wentzville Battalion Chief Michael Scott knew both men. He survived his own cancer battle after a diagnosis in 2000.
“That day my life stopped for a pretty good bit, because I was just sitting there staring out my window,” Scott said.
Scott said his fellow firefighters who covered his time off.
“They never asked once to pay them back, even though I’ve offered,” he said.
Scott gives back by reminding colleagues the danger is not over when the fire is out.
“That was something we never thought of,” Scott said. “I mean, we came back from fires, yeah, you’d go take a shower, you’d wipe your face off, but you’d get to cleaning the equipment, your hands would be black with soot.”
Marlo added: “If we as leaders in the fire department don’t start taking it seriously, who else is going to do it?”
Marlo found a detox chamber, now required for firefighters returning from a job.
“It’s a medical grade infrared system…it opens up your sweat pores and those toxins we’ve been exposed to, you sweat them out,” he said.
It looks like regular exercise in a sauna, but it’s really about purging a deadly enemy.
“We would go on fires and you would smell like a bonfire essentially for two or three days afterwards, but what we’re already noticing with these saunas is when the guys get in them, the smell’s almost immediately gone,” Marlo said.
Dirty gear goes into the decon and extractor room. Every fire truck has a cancer kit, which contains trash bags to secure fire equipment, a brush to remove thick soot, and baby wipes.
“We wipe down our ears or throat, our neck, our nostrils, anything that’s exposed, just to get anything that’s on our body off of us,” Marlo said. “This is the number one thing we can do right now to protect our firefighters.”