Dalmatians are the iconic firehouse dogs, but it’s beagle-hound mixes that might end up saving some lives. The Modesto Fire Department is among more than 50 across the nation working with Canada-based CancerDogs to sniff out the disease through firefighter breath tests.
The department first participated in the experimental program 2 1/2 years ago, said firefighter Jeremy Eldredge, who is the project manager, or liaison, between CancerDogs and the MFD. Of the department’s approximately 125 firefighters, all participated except a handful who either didn’t want to or were injured and off the job. This year, only one person has opted out, and Eldredge said he’s trying to work out getting tests for even those out injured.
The test is simple, fast and inexpensive. The $20-per-person cost is being paid by Modesto City Firefighters Association Local 1289, and the department is making sure personnel have time to be tested while on the job, Eldredge said.
The way it works is the person being tested opens a sealed package containing a surgical-type mask, breathes normally into it for 10 minutes while filling out paperwork including a medical history, then folds up the mask and puts it in another sealed bag for shipment to CancerDogs.
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I’ve been told I’m not a real popular guy for the first month or so after testing. I never really truly realized how much it weighed on people, and when I’d go to a station, it would be, ‘What are you doing here?’ I’d say, ‘Just passing through, thought I’d say hi. Hadn’t seen you guys in a while.’ And it would be, ‘OK, just wanted to make sure.’
Jeremy Eldredge, Modesto Fire Department project manager for cancer testing, on being viewed like the Grim Reaper
There, the trained dogs “hit” on any cancer indicators. If 3 of 4 dogs hit on a sample, the subject tested is asked to take the breath test again for 20 minutes, to better saturate the fabric. A positive result on the longer test – and Modesto has had a few – leads CancerDogs founder Glenn Ferguson and his staff to recommend that the firefighter ask his doctor for a blood test.
So far, the testing has led to no cancer diagnoses for Modesto firefighters, Eldredge said, but the dogs sometimes hit on other health indicators, so “we did have one of the guys find out he was in early stages of diabetes.”
“This year is kind of a big one for us,” he added, “because the guys we tested before who had hits last time, we know who they are, so (we) want to see if the dogs hit on them again and see what comes out of it.”
In 2010, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which is a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, began a multiyear study to examine whether firefighters have a higher risk of cancer and other causes of death because of job exposure. Subjects were more than 30,000 career firefighters who served in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco between 1950 and 2010.
The study found that depending on the type of cancer – mostly digestive, oral, respiratory, urinary, multiple myeloma and malignant mesothelioma – firefighters had a 5 percent to 15 percent increase in risk above the general population, said Kenneth Fent, a research officer with NIOSH.
Added NIOSH epidemiologist Doug Daniels, head researcher on the report: “In essence, in our group of 30,000 firefighters, they had a 10 percent increase risk compared to general population. That’s on a relative scale. So let’s say the lifetime risk for anybody for cancer is about 40 percent for males of working age. So 10 percent of 40 percent is 4 percent, so in that group of firefighters over their lifetime, they have an increased risk of 4 percent.”
It’s a modest but statistically significant increase, said Daniels, who noted that the firefighting service as a whole has shown it’s very concerned with cancer risks and has many groups working to keep exposure to carcinogens low.
We see our test as being a part of an overall system, just the first step of somebody picking up something early. We really do depend on what happens afterward. We don’t see our dogs as providing a diagnosis, but rather a screening process that leads to other tests.
Glenn Ferguson, CancerDogs founder
The bulk of carcinogen exposure comes from skin absorption, Eldredge said.
“We found out through part of the study that the hoods we wear are a pathway for absorption,” he said. “Basically, they get saturated with all the carcinogens in the air and then sit on your head and your pores absorb some of that.”
The department has been proactive the past few years in ways including bringing in extractors, special washing machines used to clean the garb that firefighters wear in action, known as turnouts.
“In the old days – old days not being so long ago, maybe 10 years – guys would go to a fire and not wash their gear, kind of pride themselves on smelling like fire. Now, as soon as people are done at a fire, we go back and we have second sets of turnouts” to wear while the others are washed, Eldredge said.
Firefighter breathing masks work well, he said. They are positive pressure, meaning they’re constantly pushing air out.
“Some of our bigger issues revolve around what we do when they’re off, so we’re starting to make changes organizationally like when we’re doing mop-up on a fire, making sure we’re still wearing breathing apparatus because there’s still a lot of carcinogens in the air,” Eldredge said.
CancerDogs has calculated that its canine sniffers are more than 90 percent accurate in finding cancer, Ferguson said.
And when a result is determined to be false positive, he said, the most common cause is a precancerous condition, such as colorectal polyps or dysplastic nevi. These atypical moles may resemble melanoma, and people who have them are at increased risk of developing melanoma.
“We sometimes get lucky,” Ferguson said. “The tests are useful in that we’re not only finding cancer, but also precancers.”
When Eldredge volunteered to be project manager those couple of years back, he didn’t know what to expect, he said.
“If I walked away from it with anything at the time,” Eldredge said, “it was that the idea of job-related cancer weighed on our guys a lot more than I realized. As a culture, we probably don’t do the best job of talking about some of this stuff. …
“Most of the guys have been really open to this, like ‘If it catches something, why not?’ I would say that was the attitude across the board.”
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NIOSH study of cancer among u.s. firefighters
The firefighters studied showed higher rates of certain types of cancer than the general U.S. population.
Based on U.S. cancer rates:
▪ Firefighters in the study had a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths. These were mostly digestive, oral, respiratory and urinary cancers.
▪ There were about twice as many firefighters with malignant mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
▪ There were more cases of certain cancers among younger firefighters. For example, firefighters in the study who were under 65 years of age had more bladder and prostate cancers than expected.
When comparing firefighters in the study with one another:
▪ The chance of lung cancer diagnosis or death increased with amount of time spent at fires.
▪ The chance of leukemia death increased with the number of fire runs.
Source: National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health