Firefighters are among those workers who have one of the highest rates of contracting the asbestos cancer mesothelioma, simply because they are exposed to asbestos on a frequent basis. Now the Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighters Association (PPFFA) is lobbying to change the law in that state, in order to have cancer designated as an occupational illness.
Pennsylvania is not currently among the 31 states that recognizes cancer as an occupational disease, which means that firefighters cannot receive workers’ compensation if they contract any kind of cancer as a result of conditions on the job. This is particularly troubling for firefighters diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, since this rare kind of cancer is associated almost exclusively with asbestos exposure, and firefighters are traditionally exposed to high levels of asbestos particulate during the course of their duties.
Asbestos is considered safe when it remains intact, but when it is disturbed or damaged – as would happen when asbestos-containing materials are destroyed in a fire or during the course of fighting a fire – the asbestos can release millions of microscopic, needle-like fibers into the air. When these are breathed in, they embed themselves in the lungs and mesothelium, a sheath covering the lungs and lining the chest cavity, and from there can develop into the cancer known as mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma can take up to 50 years to become symptomatic, which means that it is often not diagnosed until it is in the very last stages. Currently considered incurable, there are some options available for treatment to relieve pain and improve the patient’s breathing function.
The PPFFA is sponsoring a bill which has already been approved in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and will now go before the state senate.
Having their cancer recognized as a direct result of hazardous working conditions not only means that the firefighters will be able to receive medical care costs and reimbursement for lost wages under Pennsylvania’s workers’ compensation system, but also provides them with a valuable sense of acknowledgement.