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Cancer kills firefighters but coverage varies by province. A new law seeks to change that

Fire knows no borders in Canada — but firefighters’ workplace compensation for some types of cancer does. A new federal law could change that.

How provinces compensate firefighters for workplace-related cancers — the most deadly occupational risk they face — varies widely. 

Provincial workplace safety boards link different cancers to firefighting, making it harder for some firefighters to access compensation.

“To have this inequality of coverage for firefighters when they get diagnosed with those illnesses is a real disservice to those who serve the community,” said Neil McMillan, director of science and research at the Occupational Health, Safety and Medicine Division of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).

A man in a suit sits in front of a computer screen that has a fire screensaver.
Neil McMillan, director of science and research for the Occupational Health, Safety and Medicine Division of the IAFF, said cancer is the greatest occupational threat faced by firefighters. (Jean-François Benoit )

Earlier this year, MPs and senators passed a private member’s bill — championed by Liberal member of Parliament Sherry Romanado — that seeks to standardize that compensation.

It’s designed to create a national framework for the prevention and treatment of cancers within a year.

“We’re delighted that it made its way through the House and the Senate unanimously in support and became law,” said Romanado.

“Strangers come to me in tears … saying, ‘You’re going to save lives.’ It’s been really overwhelming.”

The law, formerly known as Bill C-224, will see provinces and the federal government share research about occupational cancers for firefighters, with the goal of establishing greater consistency in coverage across the country.

Romanado, whose spouse and father served as firefighters, said it felt like fate when she was chosen to present a private member’s bill shortly after a constituent approached her about this issue.

Jean-François Couture was 44 years old, with two school-aged children, when he was diagnosed in 2017 with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. 

He had served as a firefighter with Longueuil, Que. for more than 20 years before his diagnosis.

While his form of cancer is covered by Quebec’s workplace health and safety board, he knows that others aren’t so lucky — which is why he reached out to Romanado about a legislative fix.

“I was thinking, what can I do to help other people?” he told CBC News.

After Couture contacted Romanado, she met with the International Association of Firefighters and the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs to discuss the problem.

“When I started looking into it, [I] realized that there really was a huge discrepancy across provinces,” she said.

Change isn’t guaranteed

The new law requires the establishment within a year of a new national framework for the prevention and treatment of cancers among firefighters.

Authorities from across the country will convene to discuss coverage, share research and data across provinces and talk about best practices for preventing cancers.

But the law doesn’t guarantee that provincial workplace safety authorities will end up covering more types of cancer for firefighters.

“At the end of the day, [the provinces] decide what to do, but this way at least we know that everyone gets the same information,” said Romanado.

The two provinces currently covering the lowest number of presumptive cancers for firefighters — New Brunswick and Quebec — both say they’re willing to expand their coverage.

In a media statement, New Brunswick’s workers compensation board said it’s open to expanding cancer coverage for firefighters.

“In fact, we are currently exploring this,” said WorkSafeNB spokesperson Laragh Dooley in a media statement.

Quebec’s workplace health and safety board, CNESST, said in a media statement that changes to Quebec law in 2021 made it easier to add new occupational diseases to its coverage.

CNESST said it has struck a committee to look at expanding the number of cancers affecting firefighters that it covers.

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) estimates that 95 per cent of line-of-duty deaths are attributable to cancer.

Burning materials release carcinogens. Firefighters are also exposed to chemical byproducts from combustion or debris.

Even diesel exhaust fumes and some foams used in firefighting can expose firefighters to cancer risks, said Paul Demers, director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre based at Ontario Health in Toronto.

“There’s really been a long-term concern about the risk of cancer in firefighters,” he said. “In the last 10 or 15 years, there’s been more and more studies that have been coming out and giving us a more consistent picture of which kinds of cancers … we’re seeing more in firefighters than the general population.”

The growing number of wildfires in Canada presents a unique threat. Because wildfire work involves long deployments in remote areas, McMillan said, those firefighters don’t have the same access to personal protective equipment they would if they were working on a burning building.

“Firefighters take an oath to put themselves in harm’s way, and that involves being exposed to carcinogens and toxicants,” he said.

Romanado said her hope for the bill is that it leads to better practices for cancer prevention. It also designates January as “Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month.”

“I’m just looking forward to getting the work done so that we can be there and support those who are supporting us,” she said.

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