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As if these Guys did not Have enough to worry about


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Hidden risk: Firefighters' cancer rates higher than average

By William H. Newland

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I am painfully aware of the risks firefighters face on a daily basis in the performance of their duties, as I did the job as a City of Binghamton firefighter for 24 years. I am further aware that firefighters face additional risks of contracting cancer when compared to the general population.

During my tenure as a firefighter, I also served for several years as president of I.A.F.F. Local 729, the union representing the Binghamton firefighters. It was in his capacity as union president that I became aware of the added risks of my chosen profession -- that firefighters have a much greater risk of being diagnosed with a number of different cancers. In fact, a number of national studies have shown that career firefighters face a four times greater risk of being diagnosed with kidney cancer than someone who is not a firefighter. The occurrence rates are staggering for other cancers too: bladder cancer is three times, skin cancer three times, testicular cancer two and half times, melanoma two and a quarter times, liver and intestine cancer two times, and prostate cancer and non-Hodgkins lymphoma both have a two times greater occurrence rate in the firefighters.

In my capacity as union president, I was also a lobbyist for improved health and safety issues facing firefighters. During the early 1990s, I was part of a statewide lobbying effort to obtain presumptive cancer legislation for firefighters. Under my tenure the legislation never became a reality. However, through the persistence of union leaders from across the state, along with the New York State Professional Fire Fighters Association (the statewide organization representing the 25,000 paid professional firefighters in New York state), firefighters were successful in getting presumptive cancer legislation passed in Albany. New York was one of the first states in the country to pass a presumptive cancer legislation bill, and has since served as a model for other states attempting to protect its firefighters. Today there are 40 U.S. states and six Canadian provinces with presumptive cancer legislation on the books. I was delighted when the legislation finally became a reality here in New York.

Presumptive legislation varies from state to state as to what cancers are covered, and what benefits are attached, in the event that a firefighter is diagnosed with cancer. Candidates for hire into the fire department receive thorough physicals before being hired to ensure they are healthy to begin the job. During his/her career, if that firefighter is diagnosed with any of the covered cancers, it is presumed that such cancer was acquired as part of the performance of the duties as a firefighter, and that individual may become eligible for disability benefits.

In the course of their duties, firefighters are very often exposed to a number of carcinogens, including benzene, asbestos, diesel exhaust and about 70 toxic chemicals. These chemicals can be inhaled and are often absorbed through the pores of the skin, thus creating the greater risk to firefighters.

After retirement, I continued to feel the need to give back to the profession I so dearly enjoyed. Last year, I established The Retired Professional Fire Fighters Cancer Fund Inc., a registered 501©(3) non-profit organization. The sole purpose of the group is to raise funds for cancer research, specifically those cancers where firefighters have a higher occurrence rate compared with the general population. However, everyone will benefit from the fund's endeavors because, as we all know, cancer does not discriminate. I am hopeful that through additional cancer research, earlier detection and improved treatment programs, a cure will eventually become a reality.

I am no stranger to cancer patients. I have been a volunteer driver for the American Cancer Society for the past 12 years, transporting local cancer patients from their homes to their scheduled treatments. Like most of us, I have lost family, friends and fellow firefighters to this horrific disease. In 2002, I lost my 39-year-old nephew, Michael Connolly, to lung cancer, and four months later lost my 55-year-old brother-in-law to pancreatic cancer. As a result of Connolly's battle with lung cancer, the Michael E. Connolly Lung Cancer Endowment at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse was created, and I am a member of the board of that organization. I currently have two close friends battling cancer, one of whom is a retired firefighter.

In an effort to raise funds for the organization, we are in the process of contacting firefighter unions across North America, seeking their help. The organization recently sent out 350 letters to fire-service manufacturers and distributors across the country, seeking monetary or merchandise donations. Once merchandise donations are received, the group hopes to raffle or auction those items to raise money for the fund later this year. The organization has partnered with the American Cancer Society to help identify those researchers who show the most promise in accomplishing our goals.

In addition to me, other members of the organization's board include both active and retired firefighters, my local Catholic parish priest, a local attorney and my wife, Tricia, a registered nurse and retired professor in the nursing department at Broome Community College.

For additional information, or to contribute to the organization, you may contact us through our Web site: www.letsfirecancer.org, write to The Retired Professional Fire Fighters Cancer Fund, Inc. 4 Loretta Dr. Binghamton, N.Y. 13905, or call by phone to (607) 724-5351.

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