Firefighters Who Get Cancer Need Better Legal Protections

According to a story from, firefighters across the country tend to get cancer, including many rare cancers like mesothelioma, at significantly greater rates than the general population. This is because firefighters are often exposed to carcinogenic substances while on the job. Despite the fact that many states have enacted laws that are meant to help firefighters who get cancer, many former firefighters that are now facing potentially lethal cancer diagnoses are not seeing the benefits.

Steve’s Story

Take the case of former firefighter Steve Dillman. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2008. Doctors told him it was probably because of smoking. While smoking is linked to increased rates of throat cancer, Steve knew that smoking had nothing to do with his case. He hadn’t smoked a day in his life, consumed alcohol responsibly, and didn’t use chewing tobacco. The cancer was more than likely the result of his 38 years as a firefighter in Indianapolis; Steve recalls distinct moments, such as an incident on August 1st, 1985, when he knew he had been exposed to potentially harmful chemicals that could cause cancer. Steve, now 74, had already dealt with prostate cancer before his throat cancer diagnosis.

Empty Laws

There are laws on the books in many states across the country that are intended to help firefighters in Steve’s situation. Many of these laws state that former firefighters that get diagnosed during or following their career within a certain time period can assume that the cancer was the result of work-related carcinogen exposure. This should make it easier for them to qualify for things like disability or worker’s compensation.

However, claims from firefighters are routinely denied. Many detractors justify denials because their no direct proof that the cancer was the result of work-related exposure. To make things more confusing, the law regarding this issue can vary widely between states, and there are still a few with no laws meant to protect firefighters.

While it is clear that stronger laws are needed to protect firefighters, firefighters are also pushing back in protracted legal battles and are taking greater action to reduce exposure to carcinogens on the job. Steve, for example, says that many men in his department refused to wear a protective air-filter mask, but in most departments the use of these masks has become more commonplace.

Ultimately, we need to do more to protect public servants like firefighters from preventable rare cancers; they do not deserve to spend their latter years suffering from deadly diseases.


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