Under legislation pending in Albany, city firefighters would be granted a five-year post-retirement period in which they could revise their retirement option if they developed cancer that may be linked to carcinogens they were exposed to on the job.
Epidemiological studies have established the firefighting-cancer link for several years.
A Job-Related Hazard
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine, based on the review of the health records of 30,000 firefighters from Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, found “evidence of a relation between firefighting and cancer” and a new finding that found evidence of “excess malignant mesothelioma” as well.
Since 2002, cancer was the cause in almost two out of every three firefighter line-of-duty deaths, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Uniformed Fire Officers Association President James Lemonda said in a phone interview, “Both the [Uniformed Firefighters Association] and UFOA have been pursuing this. Every firefighter in New York State has already been afforded this protection with the exception of New York City Firefighters…who are exposed to the same carcinogens on a daily basis.”
On June 18, the City Council passed a home-rule message in support of the measure, and union officials were optimistic they could win passage in the Assembly and Senate by the end of the session June 20.
“This is a recognition that these job-related cancers can manifest long after the exposure,” Council Member Andrew Cohen, chair of the Committee on State and Federal Legislation, said during a City Hall interview. “This is a benefit available across the state, and it is only just that New York City Firefighters have the same protection.”
Cuomo Not Tipping Hand
Governor Cuomo’s Press Office said he would review the legislation.
“If a Firefighter retires tomorrow and up to five years later gets diagnosed with cancer, that would be attributed to his work as a Firefighter,” UFA President Gerard Fitzgerald said in an interview at City Hall. “All of us that were there for the World Trade Center, we have this. This is for future retirees who were not involved with the World Trade Center who would get cancer protection for up to five years after they retire.”
Also included would be any WTC firefighter who developed cancer subsequently but was told by officials that they developed it too soon after 9/11 to claim it was job-related under the Zadroga Act.
Mr. Fitzgerald said that ironically, it was the high incidence of cancer among the FDNY’s World Trade Center responders that prompted medical researchers to take a closer look at the potential linkage.
Toxic Building Materials
“One of the things that came out of the World Trade Center was the fact that firefighters were coming down with cancers at a younger age than the normal public, so that piqued the interest by different universities, hospitals, and cancer researchers across the world,” he said. “What they came up with was that a lot more plastics, a lot more carcinogens” are being used in construction “because almost everything today is made either with woods that are held together with glues that are poison, or plastics that when they burn are also toxic.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited formaldehyde, asbestos and arsenic as problematic.
Mr. Fitzgerald pointed out that while the incidence of structural fires has been trending down, the ones that firefighters now respond to can be more toxic. “They burn at a higher temperature than in the old days, when everything was made of natural materials, wools and woods, whereas these new materials are burning at an excessive rate because they have their own fuel in the material,” he said.
The growing scientific evidence linking firefighting with higher incidences of cancer has already produced significant changes in how firefighters wrap up their calls.
“With knowledge comes change, so the unions are advocating that our Firefighters and fire officers decon [decontaminate] after any job,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “So rather than put it off, hit the showers and get the toxic ash and carcinogens off of you and off your gear and off the rig.”
Mr. Lemonda said that the unions were pushing for members at every firehouse to have access to washing machines, “because it would be more conducive to removing the contamination from their gear.”
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