Virginia's Firefighters Deserve More Health Coverage
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Virginia's Firefighters Deserve More Health Coverage

Firefighters are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the general population. Why are they denied the help they need?

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fire, blaze, smoke, haze, forest fire, wild fire, firefighter

When out in the field, firefighters wear about 45 pounds of protective gear. Depending on the situation, they might need additional tools such as thermal imaging cameras, a radio, a box light or an axe, bringing the total up to 75 pounds, potentially.

The extra poundage is a necessary burden, though, as firefighters' helmets, jackets, gloves, etc. are all specially manufactured to protect them from dangers such as flames, smoke or collapsing structures.

But this state-of-the-art gear doesn't protect them from what the International Association of Firefighters says is the leading cause of death among firefighters today - cancer.

Statistics from the IAFF show that firefighter deaths attributed to cancer haven't just risen over the years - they have skyrocketed. Since 1950, cancer-related deaths in firefighters have risen 250 percent. Today, that translates to firefighters having a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from it.

It's not just one certain type of cancer that those in the fire service are more likely to get, either, which is what we used to think. Thirty years ago, firefighters were most often diagnosed with cancers caused by asbestos, such as mesothelioma. Mesothelioma still poses a huge risk - firefighters have a 100 percent increased risk of being diagnosed - but today, there's a significantly higher rate of firefighters being diagnosed with esophageal, testicular, colon, brain and bone cancers.

So what's the reason for these changes? There are many competing factors, but researchers say that the biggest reason is all of the new chemicals, synthetics and plastics in modern homes and businesses, which can leave high amounts of carcinogens in the air or on skin when burned.

And while firefighters have been using new methods to protect themselves, such as washing down equipment and gear after battling the flames, it's not enough. They need modern care to help battle these modern cancer risks - which, unfortunately, doesn't exist in Virginia.

The Virginia Workers' Compensation Act, which provides wage replacement and medical benefits to employees injured on the job, doesn't include brain, colon or testicular cancer on its list of presumed work-related illnesses - though many are hoping to change that soon.

In January, hundreds of firefighters and their families marched to the State Capitol in Richmond to encourage lawmakers to support a bill that provides more health coverage to firefighters diagnosed with cancer - specifically, one that adds colon, brain and testicular cancers to the list of occupational diseases covered by the Compensation Act. The bill would remove the compensability requirement that an employee who develops cancer had contact with a toxic substance while working, which would make it much easier for firefighters diagnosed with cancer to get the help they need.

The Senate passed the bill almost unanimously in January, sparking new hope for firefighters and their families - but not for long, as a Virginia House subcommittee voted early February to table the bill until next year so that it can be studied.

Personally, I was a little bit shocked that the delegates tabled the bill. I'm STILL shocked that this bill was even needed in the first place, honestly - the fact that so many firefighters can be denied treatment for cancer is simply infuriating. Just because of a little loophole in the Virginia Workers' Compensation Act, thousands of first responders who put their health, safety and LIVES at risk aren't able to receive help if they are diagnosed with brain, colon or testicular cancer - cancers that they are so much more susceptible to because of their service.

I question why the delegates of the House subcommittee tabled the bill to study it for a year. Some topics are so complex and relatively unknown that it makes sense to wait and study all of a bill's competing notions, I admit. But, in my opinion, the topic of providing services to firefighters is not one of them, especially when there is already so much data and research out there.

Even worse, there are people who actually oppose this bill because providing the care would cost cities millions of dollars more every year - because apparently dollars and budgets are worth saving - nevermind the men and women putting their lives on the line.

To those who oppose this bill because it is too "expensive," shame on you. I don't know exactly how much a firefighter makes, but I do know that it's not much and definitely not enough. I think the least Virginia can (and should) do is support those who give up so much to support us.

So I, for one, stand behind this bill and making sure that those in the fire service receive the help and compensation they need when battling brain, colon or testicular cancer. I stand behind Virginia's firefighters. And when it comes time to vote on this bill, I hope legislators will, too.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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