James Cripps, the head of manufacturing at the UofL Brown Cancer, travels across the state to raise awareness of occupational cancer in firefighters.
James Cripps, the head of manufacturing at the UofL Brown Cancer, travels across the state to raise awareness of occupational cancer in firefighters.

Firefighters take risks everyday, and many of the risks they face are not visible. James Cripps, who was a firefighter for nearly a decade before becoming a manufacturing administrator at the UofL Health Brown Cancer Center, hopes to eliminate some of those risks. Cripps was awarded one of the Outstanding Community Engagement Awards on March 22 for teaching firefighters throughout Kentucky about occupational cancer and mitigation strategies.

As of 2016, 70% of the line-of-duty deaths for career firefighters were caused by occupational cancer. UofL News caught up with Cripps to learn more about the classes he is teaching throughout Kentucky. 

UofL News: What made you want to raise awareness of occupational cancer?

James Cripps: When I was working as a career firefighter, another firefighter that came in as a high school student had gotten hired and been with our fire department for many years. After turning about 35, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and then died pretty quickly thereafter. The prevalence of cancer in firefighters is higher than your general population, but this is one of the first ones that really personally touched me and the department that I was working with at the time.

I talked to the chief at the time — his name is Dave Goldsmith. He spurred me along to get this started because he thought my combination of being a firefighter and knowledge of cancer biology and how cancer works in the body would provide a good resource for firefighters.

UofL News:  What should the general public know about occupational cancer?

Cripps: There are lots of different occupations that have higher risks of cancer than the general population, but I solely focus on firefighters. It is something that’s only recently been focused on in the past 10-plus years. Really, it comes about because of our increased use of petroleum-based materials — things that are derived from oil-based products of plastics and synthetics. Some of those are what they call “forever chemicals,” which are types of chemicals that get in your body and they’re there forever. These are the types of chemicals that penetrate the gear that firefighters wear, get inside their bodies, and really cause a lot of this havoc. It’s where we’re seeing increased rates of cancer, and firefighters dying earlier from very uncommon cancers.

UofL News:  What topics do you cover in your trainings to firefighters?

Cripps: First of all, I explain to them what causes cancer, so they understand how these toxins cause cancer, and then we have mitigation strategies. So, we talk about different things, pretty much everything from what you would consider a decontamination procedure, which is something normally done when you’re exposed to hazardous materials. We also talk about limiting exposures by use of different types of new products or new types of gear that helps prevent a lot of these particles and toxins from getting to the firefighters themselves, and just some alterations of standard things that have always been done in the fire service.

Fire services is a lot like many professions, where we tend to do the same thing over and over, because that’s the way it’s always been done. Now, a lot of firefighters are seeing, a lot of younger firefighters are seeing that people are changing the way they’re doing things. Much of it is just changing behaviors.

UofL News: What are some of the best ways to prevent occupational cancer?

Cripps: Awareness in general is probably the number one thing that helps. Being aware reinforces that they do the necessary mitigation strategies like decontamination after the fire where they try to remove as much contaminants from their skin as possible and wear the proper protective gear during the fire.

We also talk about making sure you’re having regular checkups with your doctor. I often suggest firefighters get a physical every six months. That way, if there’s any changes in bloodwork, it increases the chance of catching any type of potential issues that might be arising.

UofL News: What does it mean to you to receive the Outstanding Community Engagement award?

Cripps: It’s a huge honor. The thing that really pushes me even more is that it gives me another opportunity to let people know of this problem because it’s not a widely known issue in the firefighter space, in general.

UofL student Nkechinyere Okorie, UofL Associate Professor of Social Work Jennifer Middleton and community engagement partner Redeemer Lutheran Church also received Outstanding Community Engagement Awards for their work throughout Louisville.

Any fire departments who are interesting in a prevention training, can contact Cripps at james.cripps@louisville.edu or through the Colon Cancer Prevention Project here.