Peter had only been a firefighter for a short time when he noticed a change in his ability to breathe. At first, he thought it could be allergies but then he developed a chronic cough and was short of breath. At the fire station, he noticed an increase in congestion and headaches. Peter has always taken his health very seriously, so he spoke with his doctor and was tested for allergies, but the results came back negative. Suspecting the headaches were coming from his work environment, he took the initiative and purchased an air quality test kit and sent the samples to be analyzed in a lab. Meanwhile, his symptoms took a turn for the worse, leading him to contact his healthcare provider who sent him to a pulmonologist.

The results from the air quality test kit and a follow-up call from the testing lab indicated that there were potentially toxic levels of very specific strains of mold and that repeated exposure could cause permanent lung damage.  

Shocked and unsure how to proceed, he took the results to his pulmonologist’s office who told Peter to go to the hospital for further lung tests. One of the tests was a bronchoscope to determine if mold in his lungs was causing the health problems. The tests determined there was a fungal infection in his lungs and that was causing his health problems. Now knowing the cause of his breathing problems, the doctors removed the mold from his lungs. Unfortunately, even after the mold was removed, he still had difficulty breathing. His healthcare provider diagnosed him with COPD. Peter was outraged, “I said you can’t be serious, I am young, I’m in my early 30s, I shouldn’t be having this problem.” But additional tests confirmed that his lungs were beginning to permanently scar.

“It was frustrating, because as a firefighter we know the health risks. If I had been saving someone from a burning building and gotten sick, I feel like the diagnosis would have hurt less. But I had mold in my lungs and now they are scarred forever,” he said exasperated.

Although Peter was upset, he did not let the diagnosis of COPD slow him down. To manage his COPD symptoms like coughing or shortness of breath, Peter started on an as needed, quick relief or rescue inhaler which he always carries. If he has a COPD flare up, he talks to his doctor to get his breathing under control.

Advocating For Lung Health a Variety of Ways

Ever since then, Peter has made it his mission to make sure that fire stations and other public workplaces are safe from the many things that can threaten our lungs.

Firefighters are at high risk for lung health problems, but Peter is the first to tell you that of the 67% of firefighters who later report lung-related issues, inhaling smoke from a fire is not the most common cause. Peter explained that chemicals from a fire can be absorbed through the skin and through ingestion. This is because most firefighters are good about wearing their equipment when they are at the fire but may not clean their hands or shower after a fire making them susceptible to carcinogens and chemicals. Also, not moving far enough away from the fire, or continuing to wear personal protective gear even after it is put out is harmful as the spot will off-gas chemicals (called VOCs) for days and even weeks.

“There is an old saying within the firefighter community that the darker the gear the more heroic you are, but I want to change that script because the cleaner your gear is the more you care about your health. Because if I don’t take care of my own health, how can I be expected to take care of others,” Peter said.

Peter now works as a Fire Safety Inspector and has seen many other work environments that expose their workers to dangerous chemicals. Being exposed to silica dust, for instance, is a major danger for any job that involves chipping, cutting, drilling, or grinding soil, granite, slate, sandstone or other natural materials. “I went to one construction site where you could see silica dust in the air and the workers were not wearing masks. There were also no windows or ventilation, so the dust just hung in the air. I’m a fire inspector, but I am also someone with lung disease and I know that if you get enough silica in your lungs, you may get a lung disease like COPD or silicosis. So, I sat down with the general contractor and wrote a plan so that they had proper masks and other protective practices. I later had guys come up and thank me for saving their lives.”

Peter is also a strong advocate for making your health a top priority. “There is no price on your health,” he said. “If you think something is wrong you should see your doctor.” Peter practices what he preaches, taking control of his health and learning all he can about lung disease, which is how he started working with the American Lung Association. He is now involved in several events, most notably the Fight for Air Climbs which he climbs each year in honor of someone with lung disease.

“My advocacy for COPD is just to make people aware and to talk to as many people as I can so that they can understand what truly happens when your lungs don’t work,” said Peter. “I hope that events like the climb will urge others to speak out or get help if they need it.” 

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