The rows of firefighter boots, arranged en masse outside Florida’s Capitol, were a startling sight.
Five hundred boots, each with a card bearing the name of a deceased firefighter and the type of cancer that killed them. Everyone who came to Florida’s Capitol on the legislative session’s third day had to walk through the haunting memorial, which was there to publicize a grim trend: Firefighters are dying of certain cancers at an alarming rate.
A firefighters’ group placed the boots at the Capitol in hopes of building support for a new law to help those stricken; 44 other states have passed legislation.
Cancer is now the leading cause of firefighter deaths in the line of duty. Firefighters are twice as likely to get testicular cancer and a rare cancer called mesothelioma that’s linked to asbestos exposure. They are also at higher risk for brain, prostate, skin, colon, and esophageal cancers, as well as lymphoma and leukemia, according to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.
The cancers are linked to toxic chemicals released from the synthetic compounds all around us in building materials and furnishings – and not just in facilities with stockpiled hazardous materials. Every time they respond to a fire, firefighters wear respiratory gear to protect their lungs from smoke and fumes. But volatilized chemicals are insidious, clinging to equipment, uniforms, and skin. The soot that covers firefighters these days is deadly.
“Forty years ago, most of the structures were made of natural products,” says Jim Tolley, president of the statewide Florida Professional Firefighters group. “We’re treating most fires like HazMat now.”
HazMat stands for hazardous materials – which, in these times, can be just about anything. Even substances that aren’t harmful in their normal state can turn deadly when ignited. Repeated, uncontrolled exposure, firefighters say, increases their risk.
And that’s not all. A report last month by a Boston TV News station pinpoints another concern – that the chemicals sprayed on firefighter’s own gear to make it flame retardant are cancer-causing. Firefighting foam, too, has been linked to cancer, and researchers are finding that it has contaminated groundwater in Florida and around the U.S.
Every year, firefighters pay tribute to those lost in the line of duty by etching their names on a national memorial in Colorado Springs.
“But in recent years, we have noticed a new trend,” Kevin O’Connor of the International Association of Fire Fighters told members of Congress in 2017 testimony. “Since 2002, nearly 60 percent of the names added are those of fire fighters who have died from occupational cancers.”
All but a handful of states have passed laws to create a legal presumption that the cancer came from a firefighter’s line of work. Many have programs to provide special benefits to firefighters that offer more than worker’s compensation.
A bill sponsored in the Legislature this year by Miami Republican State Sen. Anitere Flores would have Florida join with the other states addressing the crisis. The bill would require cities and counties to create a new compensation and health insurance program for firefighters. The bill identifies 21 different cancers which studies have linked to certain chemical exposures. Instead of pursuing worker’s comp coverage, a firefighter diagnosed with one of the specified cancers would get a one-time cash payout of $25,000 and local governments would be required to cover the complete cost of treatments and provide disability and death benefits. Too many firefighters have gone broke trying to pay for expensive treatments, says Tolley of Florida Professional Firefighters. Worker’s compensation insurance isn’t reliable or flexible enough to battle the complex diseases firefighters are contracting, he said.
Most fire departments are run by municipalities or counties. The Florida League of Cities opposes the legislation, the Florida Association of Counties hasn’t taken a public position on it. The League of Cities argues the legislation, as it stands now, is too open-ended in terms of the total cost of a firefighter’s cancer treatment.
“How do you set a budget when you don’t know the cost?” asks Amber Hughes, the League of Cities Senior Legislative Advocate. “We’d love to come to some compromise.”
“We respect what the firefighters do – they are city employees, they are our neighbors,” she said. “Obviously we want to do what we can because they have risky jobs. But we have to balance that and make sure the policy we come up with is not short-sighted.”
South Florida Democratic state Rep. Matt Willhite and Republican state Rep. Chris Latvala of Tampa Bay are sponsoring the House version of state Sen. Flores’ bill.
The bill also includes language to continue ongoing work by fire departments to cut toxic exposures.
Tolley said things are different at firehouses than they used to be. For one thing, firefighters are trained to decontaminate their gear and their skin after fighting a fire.
“We think that in 30 or 40 years, we’re going to see cancers in firefighters be at an all-time low,” Tolley said. But for now, he believes “legislation is necessary to define cancer as an occupational illness and provide the protections necessary to ensure our firefighters are taken care of when they are diagnosed.”