Firefighter cancer rates should spur further action
An analysis of the health records of nearly 30,000 firefighters in three major American cities reaffirmed the conclusions of numerous smaller studies — professional firefighters have higher incidences of many cancers than the general population.
At this point the evidence seems incontrovertible.
"Compared with the U.S. population, we found small to moderate increases in risk for several cancer sites and for all cancers combined, stemming mostly from excess malignancies of the respiratory, digestive and urinary systems in otherwise healthy individuals," reports the Center for Disease Control's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in a study released in October. "Our findings are consistent with previous studies and strengthen evidence of a relation between firefighters' occupational exposure and cancer."
The study also found a strong link between firefighter exposure to asbestos and malignant mesothelioma.
"Given that asbestos is the only known causal agent for malignant mesothelioma, and firefighter exposures are probable, the excess is likely to be a causal association."
Since we accept the scientific findings linking firefighting to increased cancer risk, and since we highly value the service firefighters provide our communities, we accept that society has a responsibility to help firefighters mitigate the risk and, when cancer is diagnosed, to help firefighters and their families deal with it in the best way possible.
Mitigation, we expect, will prove less complicated than remediation.
Last Sunday we reported on local cancer risk mitigation efforts being led by Portsmouth Fire Lt. Russ Osgood and Dave Lang at the Professional Fire Fighters Association.
Osgood became passionate about firefighter cancer risk after seeing two of his colleagues, Sarah Fox and Jeff Bokum, die from cancer in 2011 and 2012. Now he is working with others in the state to educate firefighters about proper use of protective gear and the need to thoroughly wash after exposure to toxic chemicals at a fire scene. He notes that firefighters have no idea what toxins they're exposed to during a fire.
"You have no idea — maybe it's a meth lab, maybe it's a bunch of computers burning, you never know," he told Seacoast Sunday. "A car fire is a toxic soup. You've got rubber and plastic and foam and all that stuff burning. You see that heavy black smoke — well that smoke is unburned product."
"The reality is guys are going to get cancer and you've got to support them," Osgood said.
In 1987, the New Hampshire Legislature passed a law that presumed for the purpose of worker's compensation that all firefighter cancers were work related. That law was later found to be unconstitutional because it was an unfunded mandate. Now, in an attempt to help the law pass constitutional muster, Portsmouth state Rep. Laura Pantelakos intends to submit a bill for this legislative session to fully fund worker's compensation for firefighters with cancer.
While we agree with the intent of Pantelakos' bill, we certainly think the state owes it to taxpayers to assess the full costs of such a program to determine whether or not it is financially feasible. Exactly which firefighters would qualify and under which specific circumstances would need to be clearly spelled out. The success or failure of such a bill will be in its details.
If enhanced worker's compensation proves impractical we strongly urge Pantelakos and her legislative colleagues to explore other means of providing financial protection to the men and women in our fire departments who provide such a vital and often life-saving service to our communities.