The Extra Risk Our Firefighters Face

Why the conversation about the health of our heroes and job-related cancers is heating up

by Carleen Wild | Updated 19 Feb 2017 at 8:37 PM

Few firefighters would trade their jobs. If you ask them, they love what they do. We love and respect them in return. It takes a special kind of person to run into a burning building to see what he (or she) can do to help —while everyone else runs out.

But these brave individuals put their lives on the line every day, in more ways than we realize.

Cancer is a common diagnosis among professional firefighters, nearly twice as high as the general population in some cases — and a growing number of states are recognizing the risk. In Florida, a bill is again working its way through the state legislature to try to gain protection for crews statewide.

The story above explains why it hasn’t been easy though to get a bill passed to date. Something needs to be done as the death toll rises, advocates say. Kathy Babcock, a third-generation firefighter and the third generation to get cancer, prays the new bill passes.

Thirty-three other states currently recognize cancer as an inherent job risk for firefighters, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).

“Please, please for the sake of my brothers and sisters that are out there,” Babcock told WFTS, the ABC affiliate in Tampa, Florida.

Thirty-three other states currently recognize cancer as an inherent job risk for firefighters, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). The cancers recognized may not all be the same, but in general, cancers of the blood, brain, skin, GI tract, respiratory, urinary or prostate systems are included in states' legislation.

The recognition should allow firefighters paid time off during treatment or other disability benefits.

It’s not always that easy, however. Two Washington State firefighters battling melanoma recently took their case to the state Supreme Court. In going through the process of their cancers, they found that their insurance benefits had been rescinded by the city and state department of labor.

“The fact that skin cancer is a presumptive disease for firefighters — there’s kind of this promise made to us … When it was denied, it was a hard deal. Cancer’s a scary thing,” plaintiff Delmis Spivey told the Bellevue Reporter.

The two won their case on Feb. 9, thanks in part to a 2002 amendment to state law that makes melanoma an occupational disease for firefighters.

“While this increase in risk has been found repeatedly in multiple studies around the world, the reason for this association is not clear,” said Mark Faries, M.D., surgical oncologist and director of the Melanoma Research Program at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California.

Related: Alarming Increase in Cancer Rates Among Women

There is some speculation that melanoma specifically may be due to the conditions firefighters are exposed to at work, but a direct link hasn’t been made from any particular factor, he told LifeZette.

“Until we know the specific cause of the increased risk among firefighters, we can’t make reliable specific recommendations. Adhering to their normal professional procedures for protection from smoke exposure are clearly a good idea. They should also pay particular attention to the sun and ultraviolet radiation exposure they get, both at work and off duty. That is the surest way to reduce risk,” said Faries.

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