PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Most firefighters know when they sign up for the job, that it comes with risks; after all, when we run from a fire, they’re running in; but there may be a hidden risk these men and women face.
After September 11th, researchers started looking deeper into the link between the toxins firefighters can inhale at a fire site, and cancer. Now many researchers believe their risk for cancer is — in some cases — double what the general public faces.
After 34 years with the Portland Fire Department, Tom Valente had seen his share of battles, but just 5 months into his retirement, he found himself battling for his life against sarcoma – a form of cancer.
Valente is in remission now, but doctors have told him his type of cancer has a high rate of coming back.
In 2006, the University of Cincinnati published a study finding a number of links between the toxins firefighters face and certain types of cancer; toxins, Mike Belliveau, with the Environmental Health Strategy Center of Maine, says are released in fires.
Belliveau says, “Todays buildings are full of synthetic chemical plastics, like PVC plastics, and when PVC burns, you get deadly dioxins, so literally, every fire creates almost like a toxic waste factory with the by products of combustion that are toxic.”
As a result of the University’s study, 10 types of cancers have been linked to firefighting. Those cancers are: multiple myeloma, non hodgkins lymphoma, prostate, testicular, kidney, bladder, breast, leukemia, brain, and colon cancer.
Tom Valente’s sarcoma, falls under non-hodgkins lymphoma.
Dave Jackson with the Portland fire department, and John Martell, with the state’s local union – Professional Firefighters of Maine -have both worked over the years to pass along the message to not only their fellow firefighters about the increased risk, but also to state legislators.
Three years ago, the Maine legislature joined 32 other states and passed what’s called a rebuttable presumption law. It means if you’re a firefighter, and you have one of the 10 listed types of cancer — it’s likely you got it from the job. That shifts the burden of proof onto the municipalities or worker’s compensation.
Valente says he’s learned a lot over the years about wearing more safety gear on the scene of a fire, and keeping your breathing apparatus on even after the blaze is put out.
The outcome was much different for his co-worker and friend, Tim Flaherty, who died last August from a form of multiple-myeloma. The diagnosis came in 2004, and he was forced to retire early a year later.
His daughter, Melissa McNaboe, says each retiree at the time was granted 18 months of Cobra, but once that ran out, he was left with a preexisting condition that no insurance company would touch without a large premium.
Flaherty ended up on the state’s insurance plan, Dirigo, which at the time cost him $2,000 a month. The presumptive bill, which came too late for Flaherty, is meant to help take care of firefighters and their families while they go through treatments, but some doctors aren’t convinced by the studies, saying, there still isn’t enough information out there to support the case.
Since the law passed in 2009, there have been 11 cases tried in Maine, all, Martell says, are still pending. “Just take a look at the products in this room,” Martell says, “all the plastics, the carpeting, this table, there’s vinyl chlorides, plastics, and when they off-burn, when the gasses go in a structure fire, which we go into, they’re producing chemicals into the air.”
Both Martell and Jackson admit, the biggest step is educating firefighters about the dangers and making sure they’re using their gear and cleaning it when they get back.
As for Tim Flaherty’s family, they know the outcome would have been the same, with or without the law, but it could have saved them time and money in the process. In the meantime,
Their advice to firefighters and their families: be your own advocate both on the job, and in the doctor’s office.
While the studies are still fairly fresh, they’re already changing practices in some fire stations. The overall goal, Martell and Jackson say, is to minimize, if not eliminate that increased risk for cancer.
As we mentioned there are some doctors who don’t think there is enough science to back the increased rate in firefighters, even saying it seems to be just a political agenda nationwide for firefighters. None of the doctors we spoke to were able or willing to speak on camera.
In the meantime, Tim Flaherty’s family says every year around Christmas time they will be holding a blood drive in Yarmouth to raise money and awareness about myelofibrosis.
On Saturday, June 30th, there is a 5k race/walk to benefit Wells firefighter, Ramon Nolette, currently battling cancer. Click here to register.