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Schumer calls for national firefighter cancer registry

Ellen Abbott
Sen. Charles Schumer at a Syracuse fire station Wednesday.

Surrounded by dozens of central New York firefighters in Syracuse on Wednesday, Sen. Charles Schumer launched a push to create a national firefighter cancer registry.  

The idea is to get a closer look at a cancer risk Schumer said can be double that of others because of exposure to toxic chemicals.

It used to be a badge of honor for a firefighter to come back to the station with a dirty, charred uniform. No more, according to Syracuse firefighter Mike Valenti.

"What’s happening now is we walk into a firehouse and I know the guys had a fire the night before because there’s eight sets of gear in here getting washed after every fire,” Valenti said.  “They’re cleaning, they’re showering after fires.”

Valenti, president of the Firefighter Cancer Foundation of New York, said that’s the way firefighters deal with the increased risk they face. Firefighters are exposed to more harmful toxins than ever before in burning houses, including noxious flame retardants that can cause cancer when the toxins become airborne.

Valenti said even the diesel exhaust from the trucks is connected to certain kinds of cancer.

"Our job is killing us,” Valenti said. “We know it’s taking between 11 and 13 years off of our life.”

The registry being pushed by Schumer would track the potential connections between firefighting and cancer, then researchers could use the data to develop advanced safety protocols and safeguards for the firefighters on the front line everyday. It could also be used ban certain cancer-causing agents.

"It would monitor the evidence of cancer of all firefighters, career and volunteer, nationwide, so we can better understand what we’re looking for,” Schumer said, “and develop the safety protocols that would prevent these hazardous materials from hurting people in the first place.”

The senator is hoping Congress moves during this year’s lame duck session, so which chemicals to ban can be discovered within a year.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.