A B.C. fire chief says changes are needed to stop firefighters from dying of cancer Tuesday, as he paid tribute to a friend and colleague who died.
Lance Caven, assistant chief of the Langford department in suburban Victoria died on March 19 after a battle with cancer. He was 50 years old and is survived by his wife and child.
Langford Fire Chief Chris Aubrey described Caven as a friend and mentor, saying they worked closely together for 16 years.
“It’s difficult to put into words how much Lance meant to me and to members of this organization,” said Aubrey. “He was the very heart of this organization and we’re all going to miss him very much.”
The type of cancer Caven died from is one of 13 on the province’s list of presumptive work-related cancers for firefighters. If a firefighter is diagnosed with one of those cancers, they don’t have to prove the cancer is work-related to get compensation under the Workers Compensation Act.
“When you’re going to fight a fire, you’re in a toxic soup,” Aubrey said. “Modern products that we build things out of – plastics, foams and synthetics – as those products burn and we’re entering that environment, it’s all over us. We don’t know what we don’t know and what we do today may end up being something we learn is something that could potentially have exposed us to different types of cancers.”
Aubrey pointed to recent research that highlighted the potential cancer risks a firefighter’s own gear poses. Firefighting gear was recently found to contain Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, according to research cited by the International Association of Firefighters.
Currently, the gear is still the best way of protecting firefighters against the risks associated with the job, a statement from the association says, but they plan to work towards removing PFAS from gear in the future.
“As we continue more research, hopefully we’ll learn better ways to prevent this from happening. I certainly don’t want to other departments go through this. This is hard, guys. So, if we could prevent it from happening again, count me as one of the strongest advocates,” said Aubrey.
Tributes poured in from community members and other fire departments in the area at the news of Caven’s death. Aubrey said members from the department will gather in two years for the biennial memorial service held by B.C. Professional Fire Fighters’ Association, where his name will be added to the memorial outside the B.C. legislature.
During the ceremony earlier this month, members taking part in the service did not wear their usual turnout gear because of concerns over PFAS.
“We’re facing the real challenge that our very own protective gear is killing us,” said Gord Ditchburn, president of the British Columbia Professional Fire Fighters’ Association. “Out of the 48, probably in excess of 40 died from cancer.”
According to Ditchburn, cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters.
“Study after study identifies firefighters at a higher rate of contracting cancer — higher than the general public.”
~ with files from Austin Westphal.