The Investigators: Courage Under Fire

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Firefighters expose themselves to the risk of cancer every day they are on the job, but experts did not realize the dangers they face until recently.

"We're not indestructible," said Lafayette District Fire Chief Gerard Sonnier. "As a firefighter, I always thought that, 'I'm indestructible.'"

For 32 years, Sonnier has been living his dream of being a firefighter. For decades, Sonnier ran into blazing buildings while everyone else ran out, fighting the flames, all while taking in the smoke, soot and toxins. Thirty years into his firefighting career, his profession caught up with him.

"When we went to the doctor's office that day, he just dropped the bomb on me, 'Yeah, well it's cancer,' like it was no big deal, but it was like somebody punched me in the chest," Sonnier explained.

A recently released study looked specifically at firefighters and the risk of cancer.

"We have a direct link from the job of firefighting, the toxins the firefighters are taking in," said Patrick Morrison with the International Association of Firefighters. "Every single fire they run in, they are taking in these toxins into their system and what we're seeing is a higher rate of cancers."

Experts are seeing a higher rate of cancers specifically hitting the respiratory, digestive and urinary systems, including increased chances of colon, rectal and prostate cancers.

Sonnier is not only living proof of that himself, some of his Lafayette brothers are, too.

"In the last decade, we've lost four firefighters to cancer. When we started losing guys to cancer, that's when we realized it was a real concern. Those four guys, I was pallbearers for their funeral, so that was the weird part of it and when it came time to my turn, I was like devastated by it," Sonnier said.

Sonnier was diagnosed with the beginning stages of colon cancer. After one year of radiation and chemotherapy, he cheated death.

"Our track record at the department was, you get cancer and you struggle for a year or so and you're gone," Sonnier added.

Sonnier said he has no history of any cancer in his family. The second generation firefighter said up until 10 to 15 years ago, firefighters took on flames all suited up, but when it came time for what's known as overhaul, going back in to make sure the fire is out, firefighters took off their air packs and did not monitor air quality.

"So, a lot of times, you would be overhauling and your eyes would be burning from the gases and you get home and your hair would smell of the smoke and things for days, even if you shampooed it. Those toxins enter your body whether you inhale them or through your skin," Sonnier explained.

Now, Morrison said firefighters are required to keep their protective gear on and monitor the CO2 levels before re-entering a burned structure. Decades ago, burning homes were made of wood or natural fibers. But today, materials are more dangerous.

"Today, in a typical house, we have so many different products that we didn't have decades ago in the fire service, from plastics to computers to all the synthetic carpets," Sonnier said.

Despite firefighters wearing a protective suit, the smoke and toxins can seep through the smallest hole and sit on the skin and the extreme heat only makes it worse.

"Normally during a fire, a firefighter is trying to cool off, everything in their body is trying to cool off, so every pore on their skin is opening up to cool that body off. You have this layer of soot and toxins laying on your skin. It is moist and then it is compressed by the fire gear. It's almost like a direct route right into the blood stream. We are extremely, extremely concerned with that," Morrison said.

Morrison said 3,200 firefighters or first responders to the 9/11 tragedy have had some sort of cancer and 92 firefighters with the New York Fire Department died from cancer. It's why 38 out of the 50 states have passed a Presumptive Disability Law. Louisiana is one of those states. How does it work?

"If a certain cancer that a firefighter comes down with and has been working for so long, it is presumed that cancer came from the job. Doesn't mean they will get the benefits, but the presumption now is with the firefighter," Morrison said.

That law on the books provided much needed relief for Sonnier, knowing he would not leave his family with all his medical bills had he not been so fortunate. Now cancer-free, Sonnier is back on the job as district fire chief.

"What I do is orchestrate what happens at a call. I don't fight fires. I don't gear up anymore," Sonnier said.

Would you?

"Oh, in a minute, in a second. I miss that part of the job," Sonnier replied.

Knowing that your job is what gave you cancer, you would still go right back to it?

"Oh, yes ma'am. I might do a little things different. Wear my air pack, not pack down when the fire is over and stuff like that. But no, I love the job," Sonnier answered.

Louisiana passed the Presumptive Disability Law in 1995 and then in 2004, it was amended to include additional types of cancers, including those that do hit the respiratory, digestive and urinary systems.

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