MUNSTER — Joe Martin and Ryan Cusack shared story after story and statistic after statistic with fellow firefighters Tuesday night with one shared goal: To scare colleagues into changing old habits and thinking about their occupation’s greatest threat — cancer.

They cited a 2013 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study that analyzed cancer in firefighters across three large U.S. cities — Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco. The study, in part, found a higher rate of mesothelioma, with researchers concluding the findings were likely associated with asbestos exposure.

“It’s San Francisco, Philly, Chicago, where there are a lot of older houses, right? But those houses on Ridge Road, they’re pretty old, right? Guess what they got? Asbestos. The old farm homes in Griffith. Guess what they got? Asbestos,” said Martin, 32, a veteran Griffith firefighter and lead instructor for the Lake County Recruit Firefighter Academy. “It’s in Munster. It’s in Griffith. It’s wherever you are.”

Martin and Cusack led Tuesday night's Firefighter Cancer Support Network class at the Munster Center For Visual & Performing Arts designed to educate firefighters about the health risks they face on the job along with practical tips that can minimize exposure to cancer-causing contaminants. 

Munster Fire Chief Dave Pelc, whose department hosted the event, said there are several ways departments can invest in the safety of fire crews.

Some are inexpensive, such as providing wipes to quickly clean down after responding to a call. Others cost more, such as equipment purchases.

“It used to be, years ago, you would just leave your gear in the car and go on home,” said Pelc, a 46-year veteran firefighter. “Now, we’re cleaning up (after a fire), wiping down with wipes, rinsing our gear, not bringing it into the firehouse.”

The class focused on education and changes that departments can make in terms of training, operations and equipment to reduce exposures to carcinogens and work hazards.

Cusack, a lieutenant and paramedic with the Crown Point Fire Department, said departments need to take even routine “food-on-the-stove” calls and minor vehicle fires more seriously.

“Why are we risking our health, our retirement, our family’s future? Why are we risking it for a car fire?” Cusack said. “We have all this incredible equipment. Our departments apply for grants, tens of thousands of dollars, just to put an air pack on our back. And we’re not even using it.”

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, was on hand to discuss the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2017, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month. It's now in the Senate for consideration. 

The bill, if it turns into law, would provide federal funding to help protect firefighters, and require the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create and maintain a registry of firefighters diagnosed with cancer. 

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Public safety reporter

Lauren covers breaking news, crime and courts for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet covering government, public policy, and the region’s heroin epidemic. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.