The results of long-term studies are leading to changes in procedure at the Montreal fire department.
"Whenever a firefighter dies in the line of duty it makes the news. It's dramatic and everyone sees and everyone takes notice. But when a firefighter dies from cancer, no one takes notice," said Chris Ross.
The representative for Montreal firefighters said that firefighters are realizing that exposure, especially long-term exposure to smoke, soot, and other items encountered while fighting fires can take its toll.
Researchers from the University of Ottawa examined the exposure to combustion products encountered by firefighters in Ottawa.
They found that skin and urine samples of firefighters showed high levels of compounds created by burning plastic -- compounds that can increase the risk of cancer.
That's prompted firefighters to start washing their gear more often, which has required a significant culture change.
"When you're a firefighter one of the badges of honour is going to fires, putting them out and saving lives-- the easiest way to see that is the equipment. The equipment we have in Montreal is that fluorescent yellow colour. It sticks out when it's new," said Ross.
Firefighters are now washing their gear, and themselves, as soon as possible.
"We want to get about 80 percent of the contaminants off the suit and at the fire we can do that with water and with a brush," said Robert Dubé, operations chief for the fire department.
Portable showers have been distributed to some stations so that crews can wash up immediately after a fire.
The department is still figuring out what to do in winter, when an outdoor shower is impractical.
In the meantime, suits are being cleaned much more often, with the number of bunker suits being sent for decontamination jumping from five percent to 95 percent over five years.
The compounds tested by the University of Ottawa study do not linger in the human body, but they do not need to be around for long in order to cause genetic damage.
McGill epidemiologist Jonathan Chevrier said there are other toxins that do stick around long after a fire has been put out.
"We often see firefighters as these heroes who will jump into a fire, save a baby and feel like this is when they're risking their life. And they are risking their lives but most of the dangers that they face is more insidious than it looks like," said Chevrier.
In the past two years nine firefighters have been added to the Canadian Firefighters Memorial, all dying of cancer.
"It has the same cost, it has the same impact for the family, the same impact for the kids, whether you die at one fire or if you die from the exposure over multiple fires over your career," said Ross.
"It's just as important. "