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The Battle After the Blaze: An invisible threat turning deadly for firefighters

Firefighters are facing alarming cancer rates linked to the job, years after the fires have burned out.

WHAS Staff

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LOUISVILLE (WHAS11) -- Firefighters across Kentuckiana are facing a health threat that surfaces years after fighting fires and saving lives, the battle after the blaze.

Cancer is the leading cause of death in firefighters across the country, above heart attacks and other fire-related deaths. It has hit Jefferson County hard, even in the last few years.

Recent studies have found our country's bravest are 9 percent more likely to get cancer compared to the general population and 14 percent more likely to die from it. But why? The cancers that firefighters are facing show up years later following exposure to carcinogens. The types of burning materials firefighters face 50 years ago were more natural, like wood or cotton. Today, the materials that firefighters are dealing with are synthetic and have toxins, like a hazmat situation.

The Jefferson County Fire Service said Captain Rick Gossman's death in August is the latest firefighter who has fallen to cancer. His death is the 8th involving cancer within the past three years and the 6th Jefferson County firefighter whose cancer death is believed to be job-related. His death is expected to be ruled a line of duty death under the Kentucky Presumptive Firefighter Cancer Legislation. His situation is not the reality for all Kentuckiana firefighters as not all cancers are recognized as fire-related.

Jefferson County Firefighter Cancer Deaths

2018 - Captain Richard "Rick" Gossman, 51, McMahan

Line of Duty Cancer Deaths Deaths

2017 – Sgt. Jeff Kampschaefer, 37, Okolona (Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma)

2017 – Captain Charlie Riggle, 52, Buechel (Colon)

2017 - Sgt. Tim Groft, 37, Louisville (Esophageal)

2016 - Chief Joseph L. Johnson, 53, McMahan (Soft Tissue, Brain)

2016 – FF Matt Logsdon, 42, Lexington, formerly a McMahan Firefighter (Liver, lungs, spine and skull)

(Non Line of Duty) Cancer Deaths of Jefferson County Firefighters

2017 – Chief Walter Lage, 62, Anchorage

2016 – Major Kevin Bayens, 35, Highview (Pancreatic)

Some cancers are not recognized as fire-related in the state of Kentucky.

The following are cancers that the state of Kentucky recognizes as fire-related deaths:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Brain cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  • Kidney cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Lymphatic or haematopoietic cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Testicular cancer
  • Skin cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Breast cancer

WHAS11's Brooke Hasch and Rob Harris are taking a closer look at this issue, the ways firefighters protect themselves, how families are impacted, the strength of the laws meant to help these heroes, and what you can do to help.