It had been eight months since Travis Powell was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphatic Leukemia, a cancer of the blood, when he got a call. The woman on the other end of the line asked him if he was sitting down. After months of waiting, Powell was told that his worker’s compensation benefits claim had been approved.

The largest provider of worker’s compensation insurance in the state had essentially affirmed that Powell's cancer had indeed been caused by the almost 20 years he has spent fighting fires for the Sedona and Chino Valley fire districts.

His case puts a clear and undeniable face to a growing body of research uncovering the ties between firefighters and heightened cancer risk. An oft-cited 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that firefighters are more likely to develop respiratory, digestive and urinary system cancers and had rates of mesothelioma, cancer that affects organ linings, two times greater than the overall population.

The cause, scientists explain, is firefighters’ exposure to carcinogenic chemicals released during a fire. Burning plastics, insulation, carpets and other materials inside homes emit toxic gases that firefighters can be exposed to as they’re fighting a blaze and cleaning up afterwards. Burning vegetation during wildland fires can also release carcinogens into the air.

“I know I’ve ingested stuff into my body that’s not supposed to be there,” Powell said. “We’re exposed to so much more than the average person.”

It’s taken years, but fire departments are making concrete changes to protect their workers from cancer risk. Powell said he hopes his experience drives home how much those safety precautions matter.

Dedication to the job

Powell got his first taste of firefighting as a reserve member of the Chino Valley Fire District in 1996 and then started full-time with Sedona Fire District in 2001. Since then, he has worked on structural fires and wildland fires across Arizona as well as in other states.

It was October 2012 when Powell started feeling pain in his chest and abdomen. A few days later, after he saw a doctor at his annual work physical, the 44-year-old was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive type of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.

Before that, he had a clean bill of health so it was “a no brainer” to connect the dots between the disease and the carcinogens he was exposed to on a daily basis, Powell said.

But it was an uphill battle to prove his cancer was work-related when he went to file his claim for worker's compensation benefits. That’s in spite of the fact that Powell’s leukemia, because of his circumstances, should have been presumed a work-related injury under Arizona law.

As Powell underwent intense chemotherapy and antibiotic regimes, a small group of his coworkers collected data from every fire Powell had worked on, talked to oncologists and researched potential causes of his disease. The determined group pulled together “reams of data,” to show a correlation between the cancer and Powell’s firefighting experience so that he could receive supplemental and worker’s compensation benefits, said Buzz Lechowski, Sedona Fire District division chief of operations.

When the insurance company, Copper Point, approved Powell’s case, he became the only Arizona firefighter it had approved for a cancer-related illness in at least 10 years, said Rick DeGraw, Copper Point’s executive vice president. The benefits mean that for now, Powell continues to receive a paycheck and get medical costs covered as he recovers from his latest treatment, a bone marrow transplant, in Scottsdale. 

Powell said he hoped his case creates a precedent that will help other firefighters with cancer get approved for worker's compensation in the future. News articles are filled with stories of firefighters with the disease who find it nearly impossible to qualify for those benefits. 

Killer toxins

When firefighters plunge into a fire or start cleaning up the smoldering after-effects they aren't only breathing in toxic fumes of the burned remnants. The skin also absorbs airborne chemicals more easily as firefighters’ blood circulation increases, they begin sweating and their pores open, explained Robert Daniels, health scientist with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. The carcinogenic chemicals can also linger in the air after the flames are out, which is dangerous because that’s when firefighters tend to remove their protective gear, Daniels wrote in an email.

Firefighters a generation ago had no idea about the risks they were putting themselves into beyond those posed by the flames themselves, said Bill Morse, Flagstaff Fire Department Captain. They hardly ever washed their protective gear after fires and even put the clothing permeated with toxic chemicals next to their bed at night, firefighters with the department said. Diesel trucks spewed benzene-laden fumes as they heated up in department garages, turning the walls black, Morse said.

The Flagstaff Fire Department has certainly seen its fair share of cancer over the years, Morse said. He listed six firefighters who had recently died of cancer out of a department of 85.

“I know I’m tired of going to funerals and of guys dying of cancer,” he said.

But over the 30 years Morse has been with Flagstaff Fire, there has been a steady increase in awareness about the cancer-causing potential of the job and a corresponding change in culture, policy and technology to reduce that risk, he said.

Many changes — special chemical-removing washing machines for protective gear, new ventilation systems for diesel exhaust — have come about in the last decade, he said.

Powell hopes his battle with cancer will convince individual firefighters to be diligent in their own safety precautions as well. Showering, changing into new clothes and washing their protective gear after each fire is crucial to minimizing toxin exposure, he said. Annual physicals for employees and proper documentation by fire districts are also critical practices, he said.

“We already work in an inherently dangerous job," Powell said. "We need to be aware of the fact that we're not invincible."

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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