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Firefighters more likely to develop cancer than public at large, experts say in calling for volunteers' insurance

Tony Cruz, 64, a firefighter and former chief

Tony Cruz, 64, a firefighter and former chief of the Smithtown Volunteer Fire Department, is among a number of volunteer firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer as a result of on-the-job exposure. Cruz is shown at the fire department on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Firefighters are more likely to develop cancer than the general population -- and those who do the job as volunteers often lack appropriate gear, are exposed to numerous cancer-causing agents in the line of duty and don't have health coverage associated with their work, experts said Wednesday.

Mindful of an evolving health crisis among volunteers, the Firemen's Association of the State of New York is calling for a "presumptive law" that would provide volunteers with many of the health benefits afforded their career counterparts.

Robert McConville, president of the Firemen's Association, said there are 92,000 volunteer firefighters statewide. "Presumptive cancer coverage for volunteer firefighters is not only the necessary thing to do, but the right thing to do," he said.

Susan Shaw, a professor in the University at Albany's school of public health, said many volunteer fire departments are so strapped for cash they operate on shoestring budgets. Some rural volunteers, she added, show up to fires in their street clothes.

"I find this just heartbreaking," said Shaw, who is in the school's department of environmental sciences. She is conducting studies on the "toxic soup" to which firefighters -- paid and unpaid -- are exposed.

Shaw said cancer accounts for 60 percent of all deaths among firefighters, compared with about 24 percent in the general population.

Scientists say firefighting exposes workers to toxins that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

"We certainly know that firefighters are at an increased risk of developing cancers," said Dr. Jacqueline Moline, citing chapter and verse from numerous recent studies. Moline, who chairs the department of occupational medicine at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, said researchers are finding elevated cancer rates among firefighters worldwide.

Some of that risk, she said, is linked to the types of fire-related byproducts -- usually from plastics -- that become superheated in structure fires.

Moreover, cancers that usually are not linked to environmental exposures are elevated among firefighters, Moline said.

"Prostate cancer is a common malignancy; excess bladder cancer is another in those who are less than 65 years old," Moline said.

Other studies have found firefighters are 102 percent more likely to develop testicular cancer than the general population; 53 percent more likely to develop multiple myeloma; 62 percent more likely to develop cancer of the esophagus; and 26 percent more likely to develop breast cancer -- whether male or female -- than the general population.

Volunteer firefighters who have developed cancer say educating colleagues on ways to stay safe is the best strategy to prevent cancers in the future.

Tony Cruz, 64, a volunteer firefighter for 35 years, who rose to chief of Smithtown's volunteer fire department, said he developed prostate cancer 15 years ago and believes the malignancy was job-related.

"If you think about firefighting and think about homes today, you'll realize they are filled with mostly petroleum products -- plastics," he said, noting that scientists have identified byproducts from heat-exposed plastics as carcinogens.

"A firefighter is inhaling these products and absorbing them," Cruz said.

Tom McDonough, 55, a volunteer in Port Washington, also developed cancer. "I had medullary thyroid cancer. It was diagnosed by accident in 2013. And yes, the diagnosis was a surprise because I really didn't have any cancer in my family.

"I am a very aggressive firefighter. I became a firefighter 37 years ago starting out in Suffolk County fighting wildfires."

Wildfires are completely different from today's structural fires, McDonough said.

Shaw, meanwhile, said making health benefits part of state law is a step in the right direction. "We have to put more resources into our fire department. Otherwise, we will continue to watch them die of cancer. Firefighters are very motivated. This is like a calling for many of them," she said.