From the April 2016 issue of The Rotarian
What’s the most common work-related injury that firefighters endure? “It’s not falling through a roof, falling from a house, or burns,” explains Homero Ponce-Lόpez, 57, a retired Houston fire captain and member of the Rotary Club of University Area of Houston. “It’s cancer.” A 2015 study found that firefighters have a greater chance of developing cancer than the general population, including double the risk of testicular cancer and a 50 percent increase in multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. When cancer strikes, firefighters often end up at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, consistently rated as one of the best cancer treatment facilities in the United States. Ponce-Lόpez, who joined Rotary in 2011, is spearheading a project for his Rotary club to construct a house for firefighters undergoing treatment.
THE ROTARIAN: How did you come up with the idea for a home for firefighters?
PONCE-LÓPEZ: I joined the Houston Fire Department as a 21-year-old, and, like every firefighter in Houston, I spent my time fighting fires. I was promoted through the ranks, and in 2005 I transferred to the public affairs office. At that time I saw the need for a house that could be used by firefighters who were visiting Houston for medical help for cancer. Firefighters would call our office asking for help – how to find a hotel at a lower price, for example – and asking for permission to stay in a local fire station near the medical center. These firefighters weren’t able to find a reasonably priced hotel. A cancer patient needs to stay within 10-15 minutes of the medical center. There are inexpensive hotels in Houston, but they are not located near the medical center.
TR: Why is cancer so prevalent among firefighters?
PONCE-LÓPEZ: The fires of today are primarily petrochemical based. A normal house fire involves a burning TV, carpeting, laminated table, chairs with woven artificial materials. Those are all made of oil-based compounds, which may be OK, but when it starts burning, the chemicals are released into the air where firefighters inhale or absorb the toxins.
TR: Doesn’t your gear protect you?
PONCE-LÓPEZ: Unfortunately, not to the degree that we need to avoid any of our cancer issues. A study done by Jeff Stull [an expert in personal protective equipment] found that many chemicals can, and probably do, get through our gear. If you think of nicotine and morphine patches, it should not be hard to imagine that as we sweat, our pores open up and we absorb these chemicals into our bodies.
TR: What are your plans for the home for firefighters undergoing cancer treatment?
PONCE-LÓPEZ: We are fundraising to construct a 40-unit building with a chapel, library, exercise room, and conference room. We want it to look like a fire station – a second home. We don’t want them to feel like they are walking into a hospital. Eighty percent of the units will be reserved for cancer patients and 20 percent for patients who have other illnesses or injuries. “They were here for us; we are here for them now” is our motto.