When firefighter Marnell Griffin died in January 2017, it was not due to burns, smoke inhalation or any of the other hazards people associate with his line of work. Griffin, a 22-year veteran of the St. Louis Fire Department, died of colon cancer.
“Our firefighters, they get up every morning, they kiss their families goodbye. Going to work. Dedicated to do what they love,” said Griffin’s widow, Margie Griffin, standing in the parking lot at the St. Louis Fire Academy. “Once they get to work they never know what they’re going to come in contact with.”
Among the threats firefighters come in contact with are cancer-causing agents that can end careers and lives.
Margie Griffin was one of three firefighters’ widows at a Wednesday press conference where Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens made a pitch for legislation that promises to make it easier for Missouri firefighters and paramedics to qualify for workers' compensation benefits if they get cancer.
“In this past year, the St. Louis Fire Department alone lost four fire fighters to cancer,” Greitens said. “A cancer diagnosis is tragic for any family. Unfortunately, that tragedy is compounded. It is often made worse for fire fighters, because after the diagnosis the government makes them prove that it was their work that caused the cancer.”
House Bill 1647, proposed by Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, would put the burden of proof on a fire department to show that an employee did not contract cancer from job-related activities.
“This legislation properly recognizes the job that they do here in this state. A job that has serious consequences,” said Harold Schaitberger of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).
According to a study of cancer among U.S. firefighters, those consequences include a variety of cancers, including leukemia and malignant mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
Cancer risk among firefighters
A study of 30,000 firefighters that ran from 2010 to 2016 showed higher rates of certain types of cancer than the general U.S. population. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) research included firefighters in the Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco Fire Departments.
- Firefighters in the study had a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths than the general population.
- There were about twice as many firefighters with malignant mesothelioma. "Exposure to asbestos while firefighting is the most likely explanation for this," said the report.
- When comparing firefighters in the study to each other, the chance of lung cancer diagnosis or death increased with amount of time spent at fires. The chance of leukemia death increased with the number of fire runs.
While pointing to a likely connection between occupational exposure and cancer, the study’s authors provided a caveat:
Schaitberge of the IAFF was not as cautious about the link at Wednesday’s event, describing cancer as the leading cause of death among firefighters.
“Bill 1647 changes the current law to recognize the scientifically proven connection between the work firefighters do and the cancers and disease that they unfortunately incur,” Schaitberge said.
Follow Holly on Twitter: @hollyedgell