EXTINGUISHING CANCER

06.27.13

Fighting Fire With Fire

How taking on the chemical lobby may reduce the risk of breast cancer in female firefighters.

She lived through the flames, but one San Francisco Bay Area firefighter is waging another kind of battle.

When Janette Neves Rivera was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she was shocked when her doctor told her that it is most likely linked to her job. She was exposed to burning toxic flame-retardant chemicals, which are found in household furniture like couches.

Now Neves Rivera is taking on the chemical lobby. With the Center for Environmental Health as a partner, she has launched a Change.org petition urging the Consumer Product Safety Commission to restrict flame-retardant chemicals in furniture. It garnered more than 75,000 signatures in just a few days. July 1 is the deadline to comment on the commission’s new flammability standard, which is set for enactment in 2014.

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Janette Neves Rivera ()

“Flame retardant chemicals are commonly added to make up 3-5 percent of the weight of the furniture foam,” Judy Levin, a pollution prevention co-director for the center, told The Daily Beast in an email. “In the presence of these chemicals, the foam will still burn in seconds, but much higher levels of carbon monoxide, soot and smoke are emitted. These toxic gases are the major contributors to fire death.”

Levin and Neves Rivera traveled to Washington, D.C., on June 24 to hand-deliver the signatures to the CPSC.

San Francisco has the U.S.’s largest population of female firefighters, according to local affiliate KCBS. But the breast-cancer rate among them is six times the normal rate. In response, the city is looking to fund a first-of-its-kind study on breast cancer and firefighters. Days before Neves Rivera’s cancer surgery last year, her co-workers pooled their sick days so she could spend time with her two children afterward. But the city denied the request, because her condition wasn’t considered “life threatening,” according to KTVU.com.