HUNTINGTON, Ind. (WANE) – Cancer took his life three years ago, but the state is now saying Huntington firefighter Steven Mitchell died in the line of duty. Doctors recently determined the toxins from fighting fires, or carcinogen exposure, caused his cancer.
He’s among a growing number of firefighters who have gotten sick or died from diseases contracted on the job. His department said it’s a tragic reality that’s becoming all too common across the country.
“This department was touched in such a way that I know it’s a nationwide problem” Huntington firefighter and IAFF Local 680 President Jason Meier said.
For nearly 30 years, Steven Mitchell embodied the spirit of the Huntington Fire Department.
“He had an overwhelming, great personality and he was a part of this department that was a big part, and it’s just not the same without him,” Meier said.
Friends described Mitchell as a fitness fanatic.
“He was very much into fitness. He was probably one of the fittest guys that I’ve ever met. He had big arms like Popeye, and he spent a lot of time in the workout room,” Meier said.
Because of that, his fellow firefighters said his cancer diagnosis shocked everyone.
“No one could imagine anything ever taking him down. It was rough to watch,” Meier said.
Mitchell’s death is just one example of what the department calls a nationwide epidemic.
“If it’s affected our little department, and we’re a very small department, if it’s affected us as hard as it has, it’s affected everyone,” Meier said.
A 2013 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed the health of 30,000 firefighters. It shows they are two times more likely to get cancers like mesothelioma than the rest of the population.
“The heart, the lung disease, and cancer- those are the three things that are really killing guys,” Meier said.
Indiana lawmakers are taking notice of the problem, and passed the Presumptive Disability Law in July.
“It’s supposed to make sure that you have the right health coverage and make sure that you’re taken care of. They don’t want to just dump you,” Meier said.
Meier said another Huntington firefighter also has cancer and was forced to retire as a result.
“He was going to retire, but he didn’t get to retire on his own terms, which is said. He worked here for almost 30 years, and he had to go. He didn’t want to, which is in my mind, terrible because he loved the job as much as I do,” Meier said.
While the job will always be dangerous, the Huntington Fire Department hopes the law better protects those who protect us.
“At the end of the day, even though there’s a risk, you still have a job to do. So, no matter what the risk is, we’re all going to do the job and just hope that we take the right precautions,” Meier said.
Steven Mitchell’s name will be added to the Police and Firefighters Memorial Wall in Indianapolis on September 1st. He will also be honored on the National Firefighter Memorial Wall in Colorado Springs on September 19th. Several firefighters from the department plan to go to both of those ceremonies.
That’s a pretty big honor. We’ve never had that before,” Meier said. “I hope that we can bring a little bit of public awareness and it affects everybody. If it helps somebody, then I guess it’s worth it.”
Another law is in the works to change the fire retardant that is popular in children’s toys and couches. They still burn and the toxins coming off of those are severe cancer-causing agents. There are a lot safer types of chemicals that can be used instead.
“It’s going to be a long process, but at least they’re going in the right direction,” Meier said.