The Boston Fire Department has tried to combat cancer in its ranks by obtaining new breathing gear and requiring firefighters wear it until they leave a fire, equipping stations with industrial-strength washing machines, and buying extra sets of protective gear.
Now fire officials are hoping to learn more ways to the reduce cancer risks firefighters face on the job from scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, who are researching the hazards that may exist in fire stations.
“Firefighters spend so much time at the fire station,” said Emily Sparer, a post-doctoral research fellow at Dana-Farber. “It’s really a second home for most of them.”
Much research so far has examined cancer risks that firefighters encounter in the field, but the potential for carcinogens in firehouses has received less scrutiny, Sparer said.
The stations serve as living quarters while also housing diesel engine fire trucks and protective gear that can accumulate toxic chemicals.
The researchers have measured the air quality at three Boston stations and one in Arlington to look for particulate matter in kitchens, truck bays, and exteriors, Sparer said.
They picked the station in Arlington, which has newer firehouses, for comparison purposes, she said. Analysis of the air quality measurements is ongoing and the researchers are looking for additional funding so they can collect more data, Sparer said.
They’ve also conducted interviews with firefighters to learn about policies and practices for health and safety and their habits for sleep, diet, and exercise, she said. Glorian Sorensen, director of Dana-Farber’s Center for Community-Based Research, is also working on the study.
Cancer prevention has been a priority for Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph E. Finn, who said 190 city firefighters have died of the disease since 1990.
“Hopefully, with the analysis they can point to areas where we need to improve and make changes,” Finn said Wednesday.
He said Mayor Martin J. Walsh backs funding in his budget plan for next year to pay for industrial cleaning at the city’s 33 firehouses.
Though costs haven’t been finalized, Finn said, the cleaning would include air handling and diesel exhaust recovery systems, removing grease from floors, and painting.
The average age of firehouses in Boston is 76 years old, he said. New firehouses are being built in Egleston Square and in the Meeting House Hill section of Dorchester.