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Firefighters seek more coverage of cancer caused by toxic exposure

Matt Chesin

With modern building fires increasing firefighters’ exposure to toxic substances, advocates seek to expand their access to workers’ compensation.

New furniture and construction materials are made of more nonnatural materials like plastic, said Rep. Jeff Yaroch, R-Richmond.

“So all those chemicals coming off are absorbing through our firefighters’ skin, even if they’re wearing an air pack,” he said.

Plus with improved insulation, modern buildings burn hotter and faster, said Lt. Michael McLeieer, the public information officer for the Michigan State Firemen’s Association, based in Swartz Creek. This environment increases firefighters’ heart rates and exposes their pores.

“We have to be so careful when we take our gear off and clean it,” said McLeieer, a retired firefighter from Kalamazoo. “We also need to use wipes to clean around areas open to exposure from these toxins and gases.”

In 2014, Michigan passed a firefighters’ cancer presumption law to consider such risks when providing workers’ compensation for certain cancers. But with only full-time firefighters covered, most of Michigan’s are ineligible.

“Approximately 80% of all firefighters in the state are paid on-call, or volunteers,” McLeieer said.

This is especially true in smaller urban communities or suburbs, McLeieer said. The improved coverage is important for recruiting and retaining those putting themselves at risk.

“We recognize they’re getting exposure from serving the community,” Yaroch said. “The state government should then take care of the cancer that came from serving our residents.”

A National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s 2020 study found firefighters are 9% more likely to be diagnosed and 14% more likely to die from cancer than the general population.

Yaroch, a former firefighter, is sponsoring legislation to expand coverage to all firefighters and other emergency responders like paramedics and emergency medical technicians.

Additionally, the bill would add three forms of cancer to the 10 already covered, said Jeff Roberts, Wixom’s fire chief and president of the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs.

“This new cancer presumption also includes female firefighters,” Roberts said.

This means adding ovarian cancer, non-HPV cervical cancer and breast cancer.

“It’s very important we include those cancers,” Yaroch said. “We now know that there’s a connection to cancers female firefighters may specifically get.”

If these expansions are approved, they would be funded by Michigan’s legalized online gambling and sports betting, Yaroch said. That would provide $4 million annually for the fund.

Exceeding this budget could create extra costs for the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. But Jack Nolish, the director of the department’s Workers’ Disability Compensation Agency, supports the expansion.

“We will continue to work with the Legislature to ensure funding is available to compensate those who suffered health issues as the result of workplace hazards,” Nolish said.

There are also some restrictions to ensure these funds are spent on those exposed on the job, McLeieer said. That includes requiring 60 months of active service for a firefighter to be eligible and considering a claimant’s active tobacco use in the past decade.

The goal is to acknowledge these risks taken by modern firefighters, Yaroch said.

The Senate unanimously passed the package Nov. 10. Yaroch said he hopes the House passes it when legislators return to session.

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