Protecting Those Who Protect Us – Efforts Underway to Help Firefighters Who Develop Mesothelioma

April 30, 2014

Efforts have begun in two states to help provide support to firefighters who have contracted malignant mesothelioma due to exposure to asbestos. Reacting to a study published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) last October, lawmakers in New Hampshire and Kentucky are trying to introduce legislation that will provide workers’ compensation funds to those who develop the disease.

According to the NIOSH study, firefighters develop mesothelioma at twice the rate of the general public due to on-the-job asbestos exposure. The Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire organization is working with Rep. Laura Pantelokas to bring forth legislation that will provide payouts to firefighters for mesothelioma and other types of cancer that may have been contracted due to work-related factors. Volunteers are working throughout New Hampshire to increase awareness regarding the risk of developing these diseases.

While firefighters can use special respirators to avoid inhaling asbestos fibers in burning buildings, it is not always feasible to use this often-cumbersome gear because of time constraints. They are at risk of contracting mesothelioma when asbestos in a building is disturbed and the fibers become airborne due to a fire, collapse or explosion.

The Kentucky efforts were also spurred by the results of the NIOSH study. The Kentucky Association of Firefighters presented the case last November to offer medical care, cash benefits and other workers’ comp benefits to firefighters who had been diagnosed with cancer. The proposed legislation would only be applicable to those who did not smoke and had worked in the field for at least five years.

Providing Protection is Anything but Easy

It may seem like a no-brainer that those who risk their lives for the public should be protected if they develop cancer due to exposure to work-related hazards. However, some state governments are pushing back against the idea. Baltimore, for example, spent about $49 million on workers’ comp claims last year. Some governmental officials believe that Maryland’s workers’ comp law is too generous, pointing to research that casts doubt on whether there is a link between firefighting and cancer.

There are more than 30 states that offer workers’ comp protection for firefighters. In Maryland, firefighters who develop certain cancers have been protected since 1985. The state actually changed the law in 2012 to include firefighters who may have developed breast cancer due to exposure to benzene and other carcinogens. Four other cancers – testicular, non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma, brain and multiple myeloma – were also added.