Death of firefighter reminds bravest of dangers from 'occupational cancer'

Photo of Robert Marchant

For the hundreds of firefighters from around the region who went to the funeral of a 41-year-old Westport firefighter on Dec. 1, it was a stark reminder that the fire service can carry health risks beyond the hazards of putting out fires.

Turk Aksoy, a 13-year veteran of the Westport Fire Department, died last month of a particularly aggressive form of colon cancer, one that colleagues said was due in large part to his work in the firefighting field.

“Turk was an active firefighter for many years before his diagnosis. And he had done quite a bit of training,” said Dan Mascolo, who was a friend of Aksoy’s and is the union representative of Local 1081 in Westport. “All these things combined, the cancer, it originated from the job.”

Firefighters have a unique level of exposure to carcinogens. The flames they often confront are full of burning plastics, carpets and furniture, discharging a witch’s brew of dangerous chemicals and vapors. They often spend time on busy roads, which are covered with oil and automotive chemicals. They use and train with firefighting foam, which contains polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a highly carcinogenic chemical.

Aksoy’s death on Nov. 22 put a spotlight on the risks of cancer associated with firefighting, and ways that new training, equipment and procedures have been implemented over the past decade to minimize the risks to firefighters.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has undertaken studies that conclude that firefighters face a 9 percent increase in cancer diagnoses, and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths, compared with the general population in the U.S. According to a recent federal study, the cancer risks rise with the amount of time spent at fires. In addition, firefighters are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer and have significantly higher rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and prostate cancer than non-firefighters. The term “occupational cancer” has been coined to describe the kind of cancers that hit the firefighting community.

“Occupational cancer has proven to be the new epidemic we face in the fire service, far too many members of the fire service have been lost to this relentless illness,” said Nick Marsan, union president for the firefighters in Westport.

The federal study that looked at the issue of cancer noted that education about the dangers is crucial: “Raised awareness and exposure prevention efforts are cost-effective means to reduce occupational cancer risk.”

At firehouses around the region, there have been new practices and equipment put in place to minimize the cancer risk. In Westport, for instance, a new kind of hood — a garment that wraps around the neck and head under the helmet — was recently introduced.

“It blocks more of the carcinogens,” said Mascolo.

Firefighters are paying far more attention to cleaning their gear than in years past, said Greenwich Deputy Fire Chief Larry Roberts, who is in charge of training.

“Dirty and smokey turnout gear used to be a sign of a ‘salty’ firefighter, someone with a lot of experience. Today we know that dirt is full of carcinogens. All of our firefighters wash their gear and clothing regularly to prevent being contaminated,” said Roberts.

Wipes are now a standard part of the gear that firefighters use, to clean off skin and equipment. Turnout gear, as the specialized clothing is called, is kept out of residential areas in the firehouse. The compartments in the firetrucks where firefighters ride is also kept clean, and the fire crews have been instructed to take off their gear before entering the truck.

Firefighters are using bottled air (often known in the trade as the Scott Pak) far more often than they have in the past, Roberts said.

“House fires are loaded with cancer-causing fumes,” he said. “Back in the day, we used to say, ‘The smoke’s not that bad, it’s not that thick,’ we don’t need to use it (air packs). Now we know, and even with the slightest vapor, we put on the air packs. It’s all bad — we don’t want to breathe it.”

Regular cancer screenings have become a requirement, and training on decontamination involving hazardous materials has become a standard feature of training exercises. Venting equipment has been installed at firehouses to make sure diesel fumes from fire trucks don’t accumulate, circulating into living quarters.

Firefighters have been working with state legislators in Hartford on disability issues involving occupational cancer.

Aksoy, who worked as paramedic before he entered the fire service, spoke to lawmakers about his cancer treatment before his death. “Every morning you wake up and you got to put your feet on the floor because you have a family looking after you and hopefully, you know, I’ll go back to work tonight actually, and then tomorrow I’m back in New York City starting chemo again,” he testified.

His testimony evoked the kind of hard-working and tough-minded philosophy that firefighters know well.

“Firefighting is inherently dangerous, there’s a risk that comes with it,” said Mascolo. “But we accept the risks.”

A Go Fund Me page has been set up for Aksoy’s family.