After years of lobbying by the chemical industry (see: Truthout and NYTimes articles), the US Department of Health and Human Services, through the National Toxicology Program, has added 8 new substances and agents to its list of known carcinogens.  The Report on Carcinogens now identifies 240 agents, substances, mixtures or exposures in two categories: known to be a human carcinogen and reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.

Formaldehyde and a botanical known as aristolochic acid are now listed as known human carcinogens. Six other substances — captafol, cobalt-tungsten carbide (in powder or hard metal form), certain inhalable glass wool fibers, o-nitrotoluene, riddelliine and styrene — are added as substances that are reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that is widely used to make resins for household items, such as composite wood products, paper product coatings, plastics, synthetic fibers, and textile finishes. Formaldehyde is also commonly used as a preservative in medical laboratories, mortuaries, and some consumer products, including some hair straightening products.  Again, particular concern for fire fighters is not only exposures to formaldehyde from these products, but when these products burn.

Likewise, styrene is a synthetic chemical used worldwide in the manufacture of products such as rubber, plastic, insulation, fiberglass, pipes, automobile parts, food containers, and carpet backing. People may be exposed to styrene by breathing indoor air that has styrene vapors from building materials, tobacco smoke, and other products. Again, fire fighters may potentially be exposed to much higher levels of styrene than the general population, especially when products containing styrene burn.

Glass wool fibers have been redefined to include those fibers that can enter the respiratory tract, are highly durable, and are biopersistent, meaning they remain in the lungs for long periods of time. The report states that the largest use of general purpose glass wool is for home and building insulation, which appears to be less durable and less biopersistent, and thus less likely to cause cancer in humans.  However, fire fighters are often exposed to insulation materials, including glass wool fibers, in significant amounts while fire fighting and especially during overhaul when these fibers are released from the torn insulation and construction materials into the air.

Carcinogenic materials and agents are often released at very high concentrations during fires or in commonly encountered exposure scenarios during a hazmat incident.  Fire fighters are routinely exposed to many of these carcinogens.

Wear the proper and clean PPE, including SCBA and document any exposures.  Remember, cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Fire Departments must fully initiate and fire fighters need to participate fully in the Wellness-Fitness Initiative so they can get regular medical evaluations, including the specified annual cancer screenings.  Early detection and early treatment significantly improves your chances of survival.

Further detailed information is provided in the Report on Carcinogens.