Firehouses As Cancer Clusters

Diane Cotter, accidental activist, becoming next Erin Brockovich

Diane Cotter

Diane Cotter

Becoming an activist was the last thing on Diane Cotter’s mind in 2014 when her high school sweetheart and husband of 32 years,Paul, a firefighter with the Worcester, Massachusetts, fire department, developed prostate cancer. Yet, she was left with no choice but to fight. Not simply for Paul’s own difficult recovery from a deadly malignancy. Diane’s mission was to save other firefighters by finding the truth of what caused Paul’s cancer.

That fight has turned into a national movement to protect the health of hundreds of thousands of firefighters the US and globally and to shine the light on the unholy and cozy alliance that the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the world’s largest union of firefighters, enjoyed with the very equipment manufacturers accused of causing cancer among their members.

Cancer Shock

In 2014, having retired from Verizon a few years earlier, Diane was looking forward to spending more time with Paul and their extended family of other firefighters at the lakes in New Hampshire and Maine.

“You live with these people. You eat with these people. They are your children’s god parents,” she said. Paul was also about to receive a promotion to lieutenant, and that was going to make 2014 a dream year.

On September 12, 2014, in a ceremony with nine other members of the department at Worcester’s City Hall, Paul received his promotion to his new rank.

A few days later, Paul went to get a physical for routine cataract surgery. The doctor measured the level of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in his blood; an elevated concentration could indicate cancer.

The nurse practitioner called to say his PSA was up just by a hair from his last visit. She added that the doctor wanted to take a biopsy.

Diane was with Paul when they got the diagnosis. The doctor begun with their upcoming vacation plans. Diane relaxed, thinking everything was okay. Then he shattered their life.

“It’s cancer,” he told them.

“Oh no,” Diane sobbed.

Paul broke out in a white sweat. His body went wet. He took off his shirt and sat down in the chair.

The doctor spoke for 45 minutes.

On the Gleason score he was a seven.

“Not good,” she said, reliving those moments, adding, “Not Paul, I remember thinking. How could that be?” she remembered. “I just lost my mom to cancer. She was diagnosed and gone in 30 days due to ovarian cancer. Paul didn’t have a family history of cancer. He was health conscious, still boxing, heavy weight lifting, and could climb the three-story pole better than the recruits. He would challenge younger firefighters to start pumping iron in the weight room. I can still hear his booming voice,” Diane went on. “He loved his job. You could see it on his face. I knew he ate right. He was in the best health of his life. He looked like a million bucks. I felt so stupid about the whole thing. I should have been protecting Paul. He was always protecting everyone else. Why didn’t someone protect him?”

Cancer is rampant among firefighters

Paul’s prostate cancer was definitely not inherited, as no other men in his family had a history. He wasn’t a pest-control applicator, and he wasn't a farmer, two occupations associated with increased risk for prostate cancer, so it couldn’t be other activities. “The Boston firefighters had just come out with a video about cancer that someone sent me. The ’99 Cold-Storage fire, when we lost six brothers who gave their lives looking for homeless people believed to be inside an abandoned warehouse, brought the Boston, New York, and Worcester firefighters together. The video talked about fire-combustion products and chemical exposures, which I’d hardly given a second thought about. They also pointed out that cancer was rampant within the firefighter community and not just in the Northeast but everywhere. Most of the blame was being placed on chemicals that the firefighters were exposed to during the actual fighting of fires and diesel exhaust from poorly ventilated facilities. They were told to wear their self-contained breathing apparatuses and definitely to make sure their turnout gear was kept as clean as possible.

“I started looking at combustion chemicals and read some article about Nomex and Kevlar, the brands of materials used in firefighting turnout gear. I kept reading about how Dupont was funding studies on the effects of combustion materials that the Nomex and Kevlar gathered during fires. That was what Dupont wanted me to do, research combustion chemicals that contaminated gear from the fires themselves. They were evil. They funded science as a distraction. I just didn’t know the game. I was completely in the dark and headed down a dead end, but somewhere in what I was reading there was mention the turnout gear was made from chemicals called poly and perfluorinated alkyl substances, also called PFAS. It didn’t register on me at first, though. I just didn’t connect the dots. The names were long and complicated. I couldn’t even pronounce them. I kind of dropped the ball for a while…”

Becoming Erin Brockovich

“I reached out to over sixteen-hundred firefighter, environmental, congressional, and other organizations and never received a response. One of the parties I reached out to was Erin Brockovich. I emailed her a half-dozen times in 2016 and 2017 and never got a response. Nothing. I felt so rejected. Then, one day out of the blue in 2017, Erin called to tell me she had received my emails and was calling because she had received a call from a New Hampshire Fire Chief who had thirteen firefighters with cancer. I replied I wasn't surprised because every firehouse was a cancer cluster. She said she wanted to talk to me about my husband’s prostate cancer. I gotta tell you: she was like Socrates, just asking questions, leading me to see the light. Erin asked me about two chemicals called PFOA or PFOS and if they were in the gear. I said I’d never heard of them. She explained these were some of the chemicals used in Kevlar and Nomex and could be absorbed through the skin into the body. She asked me where the greatest moisture and absorptive areas in the turnout gear were. Everyone knows the groin, and that meant my husband’s prostate, and I told her that, and she said, ‘Yep,’ and I began to see. PFOA. PFOS. PFAS. These were chemical toxins I’d never heard of but that she asked me if they were in Nomex and the Kevlar, and, really, all I knew was their acronyms. But that was enough to help me figure out things.

“I went back online. I did research and sure enough within minutes I found that first 385-page paper from 2015 that said Europe had begun to transition from PFOA to non-PFOA material in personal-protective equipment including the turnout gear that firefighters wear. So that was what was in my husband’s turnout gear.”

Read Part Two: Meet The Criminals: PFOA And PFOS

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