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Colorado firefighter paramedic's death highlights cancer risk first responders face

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Firefighter paramedic Anthony Palato
Firefighter paramedic Anthony Palato
Credit: South Metro Fire Rescue

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — The death of a South Metro Fire Rescue (SMFR) firefighter paramedic this month highlights the cancer risks that first responders face across the country.

On Wednesday, September 15, SMFR announced that paramedic Anthony Palato, known to his coworkers and friends as Tony, passed away.

Four years ago, Palato was diagnosed with an "occupational cancerous tumor," the department tweeted. Palato had gone into remission, but the cancer returned. Though he medically retired on March 1 of this year, Palato's death is categorized as a "Line of Duty Death."

"As a paramedic for 21 years, there is no doubt that Tony touched many lives and will be remembered as a kind, caring and compassionate person with a true servant’s heart, he will be greatly missed," department officials wrote on Twitter.

Palato began his career as a first responder with the Sheridan Fire Department. In 2000, he joined the Cunningham Fire Protection District and later arrived at SMFR in 2018. He leaves behind a wife and their two daughters.

Palato's memorial service is at 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, September 21 at Denver First Church in Englewood. Detail's on the procession are available here.

Before the service, Governor Jared Polis ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff on all public buildings in Palato's honor.

[Related: Exposure related health conditions still trouble 9/11 first responders 20 years later]

A day before Palato's memorial service, the Denver Fire Department (DFD) announced that a 42-year-old technician died from an apparent "cardiac event" while he was working. The technician, who has not been identified, was a 19-year veteran of the department.

"The entire Denver Fire Department is reeling from this loss, and we extend our thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of our brother who passed away," DFD Fire Chief Desmond Fulton said in a statement.

Earlier this month, PBS NewsHour reported on the long-term health issues that first responders to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks still face two decades later. More than 4,600 of the initial first responders and survivors have died since the attacks, NewsHour reported. And since 9/11, more than 80,000 first responders have sought medical help.

Speaking to NewsHour, physician and epidemiologist Dr. Steven Markowitz said that over 20,000 responders and residents in the World Trade Center Health Program have been treated for cancer.

In July of 2018, then-President Donald Trump signed legislation requiring the CDC to set up a registry of firefighters to track the connections between occupational exposures and cancer. Results from that registry aren't expected to be public until 2024, maybe later.

The CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) completed a multi-year study in 2016 of nearly 30,000 firefighters in three major cities—Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco—to understand any potential connections between their jobs and cancer diagnoses. The study found that firefighters, compared to the general public, had a higher risk of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths.

"If you are a fire fighter [sic] and you are healthy right now this study does not mean that you will get cancer. We don’t know, simply from this study, whether or not you will get cancer. Instead, our study found that fire fighters, on average, have a higher risk of certain types of cancer compared to the general population," the researchers concluded. They also noted that if you are a firefighter and currently have cancer, that doesn't not necessarily mean it was related to your service.

An update from 2020 on the study confirmed the previous findings.

Resources and additional reading

Kyle Cooke is the Digital Media Manager at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at

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