In February, a team of firefighters in Orlando, Florida were sent to a boarded-up apartment complex for training. Several firefighters voiced concerns about the safety of the building, including whether or not it contained asbestos. Supervisors and city officials brushed the brave men and women off until one of their ranks, engineer Robert Goldenberg, dug up city files that revealed the building was in fact filled with asbestos. Goldenberg’s detective skills didn’t just point out a threat to the safety of his fellow firefighters, it potentially saved their lives by reducing their exposure.
The incident in Orlando is a perfect example of how firefighters must look out for their own health because state governments are unwilling to offer adequate medical coverage. Compared to the general population, firefighters are twice as likely to develop the rare cancer mesothelioma and three times as likely to develop cancer in general. It’s not just unfair, but inhumane that the men and women who risk the most for public safety are in turn helped the least by public officials.
The Dangers Facing Firefighters
Firefighters are hit with a deadly storm of toxic substances every time they step into a smoky room. The modern day firefighter is in greater danger than ever before as household items are increasingly coated in deadly chemicals. One of the greatest dangers is also among the oldest: asbestos. When old houses and commercial buildings catch fire, the destruction frees up hidden asbestos fibers, sending them into the air. Asbestos fibers can cling to firefighters’ clothing and hair, so that they continue to be at risk even after they’re away from the work site. Asbestos exposure at any level can cause mesothelioma, a difficult-to-treat cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs, heart, and abdomen.
Another one of the biggest enemies faced by firefighters is, ironically enough, flame retardant furniture. According to an article in The Atlantic, flame retardant chemicals create 10 times the amount of toxic gasses and double the amount of smoke during a fire. Seventy percent of fire deaths are the result of smoke inhalation and blood samples show that residential firefighters have triple the amount of flame retardant chemicals and double the amount of perfluorinated chemicals (a toxic substance used in many kitchen and home appliances) in their blood stream compared to the general population. Firefighters quite literally spend their days immersed in poison.
State Laws and Worker Compensation
48-year-old Fire Captain, Michael Palumbo is an example of someone who dedicated 24 years of his life to firefighting and in the process developed a deadly brain cancer. In all likelihood, Palumbo’s illness was caused by years of exposure to smoke and toxic fumes. Since falling ill, Palumbo has had to endure radiation and chemotherapy as well as two brain surgeries to remove the tumors spreading across his brain. Under the current laws, he is expected to pay for these enormous medical costs out-of-pocket.
The majority of U.S. states have cancer presumptive laws that, true to their name, presume that when a firefighter develops certain illnesses, particularly cancer, the cause is likely work-related. Sixteen states in the U.S. still don’t have cancer presumptive laws and the reason always comes down to the same thing: money. By some estimates say it costs up to $1 Million to cover a single firefighter, though it’s dubious that this is true across the country, considering the majority of states do offer some form of presumptive coverage for emergency workers.
An editorial in the Hartford Courant claims that paying worker’s compensation claims, “would risk bankrupting many communities.” The editorial tries to claim that, “there aren’t enough hard facts yet,” to prove the link between emergency responders and fatal illness. The truth is that this kind of thinking is at once misleading and ungrateful to the crucial work of first responders.
An analysis of 32 different studies on firefighters shows that at least, “10 cancers…were significantly associated with firefighting.” The same analysis points out that “tobacco [use] is unlikely a contributing factor,” which is an important point because many state governments attempt to place the blame for emergency responder health risks on poor personal choices like smoking. It’s not smoking or eating poorly that’s causing firefighters around the country (and around the world) to fall ill with rare and nearly impossible to treat diseases like mesothelioma, it’s the dangerous environments into which they willingly fling themselves.
Slow but Sure Progress Towards Better Protection
While some state governments have seemingly turned their backs on firefighters, all is not doom and gloom. Ohio Republican state senator Tom Patton has tried 4 times to change state law to provide workers’ compensation benefits. Similarly, in Georgia, Republican representative Micah Gravley of Douglasville introduced a bill that grants workers’ compensation to firefighters. The bill still requires that firefighters “prove” they were exposed to a known carcinogen on their job (a feat which can be all but impossible for some firefighters) but it is no doubt a step forward. Hopefully this trend continues so that firefighters and their families will not suffer for the great sacrifices they make on the public’s behalf.