Mother of fallen Boston firefighter working to wash out cancer

The mother of a fallen Boston firefighter is working to eradicate cancers that many firefighters face from battling the flames.

Mark Matthews has risked his life battling fires, and after thirty years on the job, he has another life-threatening battle ahead.

Matthews is part of a growing group of firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer. “Terminal means I’m gonna die,” said Matthews. “Pancreatic cancer is so aggressive. I thought of the worst. I asked the doctor how long I had to go, he said nine months. That was three months ago.”

A wall at firefighter headquarters is covered with photos of Boston’s bravest who have died from cancer, and that researchers said, they likely got from fighting fires. “Since 1990 we’ve had 160 firefighters who have succumbed to an occupational cancer,” says Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn. “We have four, actually five members who are in very serious stages of cancer.”

The staggering number of firefighters dying of cancer prompted the department to put together a heart-wrenching video warning firefighters about the hidden danger.

Experts say the cause is the flame retardants put in many home products– everything from flooring to furniture. Firefighters get exposed to carcinogens when the products burn. That dangerous soot stays in their protective gear.

Commissioner Finn says, as firefighters go to these fires, the carcinogens get embedded in their gear. “So they could take the coat off after the fire, leave it in their locker, and come back and it’s basically off-gassing. They put it back on and get re-exposed.”

There is a very simple way to make the gear safe again: wash it.

However, most fire houses don’t have the industrial washing machines designed specifically for firefighting gear.

But that is now changing. Kathy Crosby Bell lost her son, firefighter Michael Kennedy, in the Back Bay fire last year. Michael and Lt. Ed Walsh died when they became trapped in one of the worst fires in Boston’s history.

Now, Kathy has devoted her life to making the job safer. “I would like the part of Michael I admired the most to live on through helping his brother firefighters”, she says.

Kathy is helping through her “Last Call Foundation” and has raised thousands of dollars to buy these special washing machines. She’s already bought and installed four of them, and has eleven more on the way. “Installation costs between $4,500 to $8,000, plus the cost of the machine,” she says, “but it’s worth doing.”

It’s a difference that could keep many firefighters safe from a cancer danger they shouldn’t have to be exposed to.

One firefighter we spoke with, at a fire station that currently has one of the machines, says that not only does he feel better, his family does too.

The cost of buying and installing the machines ranges from $10,000 – $20,000 each. The Fire Commissioner hopes to make them available to every neighborhood in the city.