Dogs will help Austin Fire Department detect early signs of cancer

A cancer-sniffing dog in training. (KXAN Photo)
A cancer-sniffing dog in training. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — They rush into burning buildings and risk their lives daily, but one of the most dangerous health risks may not become apparent until after the smoke clears.

New research from the International Association of Firefighters says cancer is now the leading cause of death among firefighters. A Centers for Disease Control and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study tracked nearly 30,000 firefighters across the country in 2010 and found higher rates of cancer than the general population.

The Austin Fire Department says they are part of that deadly statistic.

“It is an increasing number. I know of several active cases right now,” said Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association.

The department says it has been actively trying to reduce the risk. “We’re keeping our gear clean, we get cleaned up right afterwards, we make sure we get back to the station and get showered as quickly as we can,” Nicks said.

But stepping into a burning building can expose the skin and lungs to dangerous contaminants.

“You’re basically immersed in a cocktail of hot, toxic chemicals,” Nicks said. “When I go to a big fire and I’ll get in the shower, I’m off-gassing gasses for days. I can smell it coming off my body. I’ll blow my nose and see black soot coming out of my nose.”

While 30 years ago, firefighters were most often diagnosed with asbestos-related cancers, today the cancers are more often leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma. Researchers say one big reason for the change is that now, firefighters are fighting fires in modern homes and businesses full of synthetics, plastics and chemicals that can explode much faster and coat firefighters in a toxic soot.

“The bottom line is we have a higher incidence rate of cancer and we have to do something about it,” Nicks said.

In an effort to catch the cancer early, the department is teaming up with some four-legged friends — cancer-sniffing dogs.

“A dog’s nose is amazing, if you had two Olympic-size swimming pools and you put a teaspoon of sugar, the dogs could smell that,” said Linda Konrad.

Konrad is a certified bio detection dog trainer in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She owns Good Canine Academy and recently became one of the first nationally-certified trainers to train dogs to detect early stage cancers through the In Situ Foundation out of Chico, California. 

“The receptors in a dogs nose is 3 million to our 5 million,” Konrad said. “With the dogs, they’re sniffing the cancer and finding it at stage 0 which is in situ, and 1 and 2 so they are catching really early stages.”

While they are more of a screening method instead of a direct diagnosis, the dogs can alert people to then check with their doctor to confirm that cancer is actually there.

Konrad says through years of research, the trained dogs are detecting cancer 98-100 percent of the time with no false positives.

The fire department says they will be working on sending breath samples to dogs with the Firefighter Cancer Screening Dog Trial conducted by Cancerdogs.ca. 

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