Firefighters face higher cancer risk, says visiting expert

Dr. Kenneth Kunz, a former resident of Nelson, will be speaking at the Prestige on May 20.

'Note the muscles

'Note the muscles

Dr. Kenneth Kunz says a fire fighter’s risk of getting cancer is 10 per cent higher than the general population because of the toxic chemicals emitted by fires.

Kunz (pictured below) has a PhD in chemotherapy and many years of experience as an oncologist. He spends much of his time these days giving talks to doctors and the public  on cancer and its causes and treatment.

One of his preoccupations lately has been the cancer risks faced by fire fighters, and he will be talking about that at the Prestige in Nelson on May 20 at 7 p.m., sponsored by the Regional District of Central Kootenay.

“Firefighters don’t realize that because of the continual repeated exposure to complex mixtures of concentrated carcinogens that cause DNA damage, they are facing a killer that may get them much later in life,” Kunz says.

“They get them (the carcinogens) by inhalation or absorption through the skin. Their bodies are marinated in it.”

Kunz said we often think of firefighters dying because of being  “crushed, incinerated, or asphyxiated,” but that the carcinogens are a more serious threat.

Kunz says firefighters are always grateful to hear his news even though it shocks them. Then he tells them what they can do about it, and that is all about staying healthy. He says if firefighters face a higher cancer risk than the rest of us, that means they also need to be healthier.

“We eat too much, we eat the wrong stuff, and we don’t need to work hard to get it, meaning that we don’t get exercise. It is supermarket overkill.

“Movement is a potent anti-cancer activity according to the Journal of Sports Science,” he says, as is eating whole foods and avoiding processed foods, especially sugar.

“The trick is not to get cancer,” he says. “For many diseases like lung or pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy is relatively ineffective. In certain cases it is lifesaving, but we are living in a dream if we rely on it to rescue us.”

Kunz says he does not intend to downplay the importance of cancer screening, or of  workplace safety equipment and procedures .

“Wear your bunker gear, practice safe decontamination procedures,” he says. “But I talked to a fire fighter who said that after a fire he smelled like a smoked ham for a week after. It gets in through the gear. The carcinogen exposure happens after, when taking off their gear, it all gets coated in a resin on everything, so it gets on their skin later.”

Kunz says fire-fighters’ tough-guy mystique is part of the problem.

“Historically the fire department has embraced this bravado. The public views them as invincible heroes.”

But he explains that the soot on the bodies of the men (and women) on the fire fighter calendars is poison.