For firefighters, occupational exposures can lead to many types of cancer, with health care costs that currently aren’t covered under workers’ compensation insurance.
By Minali Nigam
A budget measure passed by the North Carolina House of Representatives last month adds language that would extend workers’ compensation for firefighters to include coverage for cancers related to fire exposure. But the budget passed earlier this month by the state Senate budget doesn’t.
Almost 200 firefighters from all around North Carolina came Wednesday to the General Assembly, where they discussed many issues with lawmakers, including pension and health-care compensation. Cancer was also part of those conversations.
“We see a whole array of emergencies that we respond to that deal with medical maladies and long-term disease states of that nature,” said Kevin Gordon, president of the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association.
“Our biggest concern would be making sure that the firefighters have necessary health care for themselves and their families.”
Currently, under workers’ compensation, firefighters can get medical costs covered for health problems including lead poisoning, carbon monoxide poisoning, and asbestosis, a chronic respiratory disease.
But constant exposure to chemicals and smoke has been linked to additional long-term health effects, such as cancer. In the House budget, representatives extended occupational diseases covered under workers’ compensation for firefighters to include testicular, brain and rectal cancers; mesothelioma; and esophageal cancers, among others.
“But it was taken out of the Senate budget,” said Anthony Penland, a firefighter in Buncombe County. “We’re hoping that the Senate will put that back in when the budget is finalized.”
An active firefighter’s death as a result of one of these cancers would be considered a “line of duty death” under this new measure, said Penland, who serves on the North Carolina Firemen’s Association Board of Directors. Families of deceased firefighters would be able to receive a $50,000 death benefit in the form of $20,000 at the time of death and three annual payments of $10,000.
“We’re having more and more firefighters dying of cancer due to the types of materials that’s in the houses that’s burning now,” said Ryan Cole, a board director for the North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs.
Some of these materials include asbestos found in pipes and flooring, along with combustion products from smoke that include carbon monoxide, benzene and cyanide.
Even with breathing equipment and protective gear, Cole said, today’s firefighters are actually at a greater risk for occupational diseases because of potential carcinogens found in burning houses.
“We’re starting to see more and more firefighters coming down with cancer,” he said. “And we feel like that’s going to be a growing trend that we’re going to have to address throughout our generation for firefighters.”
Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that the longer firefighters were exposed to fire and burning buildings, the more likely they were to die from lung cancer and leukemia. The study also found that firefighters had twice as many incidences of mesothelioma, a cancer resulting from asbestos exposure, as the rest of the U.S. population.
Right now, the family of a firefighter who dies can claim the benefit if the death was the result of a heart attack or stroke or injury within 24 hours of fighting a blaze.
Several senators involved in budget negotiations said they didn’t know enough about the firefighter death-benefit measure to have formed an opinion.
Firefighters also watched a House session where representatives passed House Bill 451, which calls for a study on suicide prevention in minors, veterans, and emergency responders in North Carolina.
Cole said firefighters were hoping to be included as part of that study, especially to help those afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Please allow me to also acknowledge the North Carolina Association of Firefighters, who reached out to me to be included in this piece of legislation,” Rep. Carla Cunningham (D-Charlotte) said from the floor of the chamber, motioning to the uniformed men and women sitting in the gallery above.
Cunningham had worked to add firefighters into the suicide study bill.
Passage of the measure was unanimous in the House. Now the study bill moves to the Senate.