Firefighters being diagnosed with cancer has been a problem for decades, but now the statistics are even more alarming.
In Boston, a firefighter is 2.5 times more likely of getting diagnosed compared to other Boston residents.
Lieutenant Steve Graydon, a call volunteer firefighter in Huntington, and Captain Bill DeFord of Longmeadow, are two strangers who share a love for their occupation, but also the pain that comes along with it.
“I was diagnosed with stage 4 nonhodgkins lymphoma,” said Lt. Graydon.
“I went underwent a battery of tests and 3 hours later he came in to tell my wife and I that I had pancreatic cancer,” said Captain DeFord.
The greatest risk for firefighters isn’t always the flames, but the fallout from the chemicals the flames release.
“The typical plastics in any household when they combust give off hydrocarbons and other dangerous chemicals that a firefighter inhales through the lungs, ingests through the mouth, and absorbs through the skin. Same thing with flame retardants. Mattresses, couches, designed to protect a fire from spreading, but when they combust they give off cancer causing chemicals,” said Dr. Michael Hamrock, with St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston.
Dr. Hamrock served on the Boston Fire Department for 20 years.
Now, he's actively bringing awareness to cancer prevention
“Cancer is a huge one that's killing firefighters, now, more than any occupational illness," Dr. Hamrock told Western Mass News.
Within the last two years, 235 active members of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts have been diagnosed with cancer. Of those 235, 99 of them had to retire and 29 have died.
As of now, there’s no full-proof fix to preventing cancer in firefighters, but proper training, gear, and equipment can lessen the risk.
“It's important each department has a second set of bunker gear, so you can wash that first set of bunker gear that was exposed to all these carcinogens,” said Dr. Hamrock.
“The second set of gear provides us to essentially cut in half and limit the exposure by half to what we've just been subjected to," added Captain DeFord.
But most departments, such as Huntington, have small budgets that can’t cover the potentially lifesaving equipment.
What makes matters worse is that firefighters diagnosed with cancer aren’t protected by law.
“What we all assumed is if you were diagnosed with a cancer that you’d be considered injured on duty and it would be a workman’s compensation scenario. What I learned very early on is that is not the case,” said Captain DeFord.
Under current legislation, firefighters with cancer must use their own sick time and health insurance if diagnosed.
Rich MacKinnon, President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts (PFFM), said the organization is fighting to change House Bills 2515 and 3279.
"House Bill 2515 would place firefighters on chapter 41, section 111F which is our injured on duty status once diagnosed with cancer," MacKinnon told Western Mass. "Currently members have to utilize their own sick time and health insurance to fight this disease that is already presumed they suffered from the job under MGL chapter 32, section 92B. Our intention is to have our members placed on injury leave just like any other that happens in performance of their duties.
House Bill 3279 would extend the age to 70 years old for firefighters regardless what age you retire. Currently you have 5 years from retirement date that if you are diagnosed with cancer you qualify for disability pension. We have to retire at max age 65, so if you retire at age 65 you are covered to age 70 under MGL chapter 32, section 92B the cancer presumption. However, we are eligible to retire at age 55 and in that case we are only covered to age 60 for the cancer presumption. We are finding that the latency period is longer then five years and our members are suffering from cancer when they have been retired longer than five years."
As for how they've dealt with it, Captain DeFord has used 14 months of sick time.
“I’m fortunate people have reached out to me in great support," DeFord said. "But would they understand that I'm not protected by workman’s comp even though national science has spoken to the higher prevalence of cancer in the fire service.”
“We really need to get behind firefighters and encourage them and cities and towns to give them the right tools to do the job properly, the right gear, the right extra gear and extractors to wash their gear,” said Dr. Hamrock.
They ask to call your state representatives to push this bill forward to protect those who risk their lives to keep us safe.
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