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Firefighters Face Silent Killer Long After Fires

Will Willis served for many years as a volunteer firefighter, and then worked for the Asheville Fire Department before developing a rare form of cancer believed to be related to his exposure to synthetic materials in burning buildings. (Willis family)
Will Willis served for many years as a volunteer firefighter, and then worked for the Asheville Fire Department before developing a rare form of cancer believed to be related to his exposure to synthetic materials in burning buildings. (Willis family)
March 12, 2018

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – A 34-year old Asheville man is believed to be another casualty in a growing trend among firefighters.

Will Willis died in late February of a rare kidney cancer and doctors believe it's likely his years of fighting fires caused the illness.

Cancer now is the leading cause of death among firefighters, according to the International Association of Firefighters.

And it's not just the smoke that's causing damage. Experts believe the increased use of synthetic materials in building construction is a huge factor.

Willis's cousin, Josh Jenkins, also a firefighter, says there are ways to reduce exposure, but it comes down to one thing.

"So there's a lot of things we can do at the fire service level,” he states. “All of those things basically boil down to money.

“You need money for extra gear. You need money for an extractor, which washes turnout gear. You may need funding for more staff."

New safety codes from the National Fire Protection Association call for fire departments to decontaminate gear after every fire by washing the uniforms. The group also calls for each firefighter to have two sets of turnout gear, but each set costs $3,000.

Thirty-seven other states have laws that require firefighters who develop cancer to be covered for worker's compensation, but North Carolina is not one of them.

Jenkins says while he hopes policies are changed in the future, he and the community are standing behind his cousin's family.

"We as firemen won't leave Bonnie and those kids to fend for themselves, but it would certainly be nice to have states and the federal government to take a closer look at our risks and that line-of-duty death benefit, because he did leave behind a wife and four young kids," he stresses.

Jenkins adds while municipal fire departments can often find some funds to increase safety for their firefighters, it is extremely hard for volunteer fire departments in rural communities to offer the same protection.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - NC