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Firefighters fight against occupational cancer: Many sick first responders are denied worker benefits



It's one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Every day, firefighters risk their lives to protect the lives of others. Firefighters like firefighter Mike Palumbo. For more than two decades of service, his wife Chrissy and their five children could not help but worry about the most obvious dangers of their work.

"I think he's been attracted to the service," Chrissy said. "He was very passionate about giving back to the community that had given him the opportunity to have this career."

But a few years ago, away from smoke or fire, something else caught up with Palumbo on a hike near the family home in Beachwood, Ohio.

"I knew upon our arrival that something was wrong," Chrissy told Tony Dokoupil. "And I tried to convince him just to get back in the car." He was like, "No, I'm fine, I'm fine. "And we went down the ravine, and he literally went into a tree, and I panicked."

She took Mike to the hospital, where they learned that he had stage 4 brain cancer.

Dokoupil asked, "What do you do when you receive this kind of news?"

"I literally went to bed with him and prayed to him," said Chrissy, crying. "I brought my children, because I did not know they would ever see him again."

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Ohio Fire Fighter, Mike Palumbo, and his son, Nicholas.

Family photo


She said that before the diagnosis, Mike was "so healthy. It's so mind-blowing that you have this young man healthy, strong and happy. And then, in the blink of an eye, your life is turned upside down. "

For Palumbo's family, his diagnosis was a shock, but this is part of an alarming national trend that has attracted the attention of researchers such as Dr. Jeffrey Burgess of the University of Chicago. 39; Arizona.

"The firefighter's cancer risk is unique as a firefighter," said Dr. Burgess. "They have so many different types of cancers that it has been shown that they are high."

He said that the greatest danger for firefighters today has changed, fires that they are fighting to smoke generated by these fires.

According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, nearly two in three firefighters who died in the line of duty died of cancer.

Boston Fire Chief Joseph Finn said, "We currently have about 13 members fighting various stages of cancer, active members, and we have several retirees in this fight."

Finn showed Dokoupil a memorial wall: "All whites and blacks are members who have died of occupational cancer."

Since 1990, according to Finn, cancer has killed more than 200 of his colleagues.

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A memorial wall to the Boston Fire Department.

CBS News


"How does this compare to the number of firefighters who died in the fire itself?" Asked Dokoupil.

"It certainly exceeds at least ten, 20, 30 against one," Finn replied.

It's a change from the past, Finn said. And scientists think this could be related to another change, that of modern building materials.

"Everything you buy today is covered in plastic," Finn said. "So, once they break down and burn, they will emit all those toxins and carcinogens that are really deadly to firefighters."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this includes formaldehyde, asbestos and arsenic.

And at risk adds a centuries-old tradition of fighting fires: a celebration of soot as a sign of good work.

A long time ago, being dirty was a sign of honor for a firefighter: "The more dirty you were, the more you looked like you had done more and the more you were the guy who did work, "said Finn.

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Scientists believe that the increase in firefighter cancer may be related to the evolution of modern building materials and the increased use of plastics, which release toxins and carcinogens when burned.

CBS News


Now, as it's not enough to survive the flames and fight against cancer, some firefighters face another even more amazing challenge in the very cities that they protect.

Patrick Mahoney, 37, is a firefighter in Baytown, Texas, a city teeming with refineries and chemical plants, where working out on a hell is a day of work.

In 2017, after 15 years of service in Baytown, Mahoney discovered a bulge on his neck: thyroid cancer.

"And at that time we had one or two types of cancer in my department," Mahoney said. "And they were all people who were not smokers, who did not use chewing tobacco.They were healthy people, so when I was diagnosed I really felt that it was related to my work. "

It's impossible to know exactly what causes a particular case of cancer, but Texas is one of 38 states with so-called "presumptive laws" – which means that a number of types of cancer are declared in an active or recently retired firefighter. assumed he had been at work and was entitled to workers' compensation benefits (for example, lost wages and medical coverage).

But for many firefighters, these benefits are still out of reach.

"In the beginning, the worker carrier in my city had outright said," We do not cover cancer, "Mahoney said.

He appealed his case and won twice, but the city of Baytown sued him to have the decision annulled.

"To be prosecuted like that after denying that it's treason," said Mahoney. "It sometimes makes me want to go to work in a cafe, because I feel like they're making fun of it."

According to Baytown, the problem is whether Mahoney's thyroid cancer should be covered by Texas law. "Baytown has sought judicial clarification," the city said in a statement, adding that the payment of each claim for compensation could cost the city "between $ 600,000 and $ 2 million per case".

And Mahoney's case is not unusual. Since 2012 in Texas, according to the Texas Firefighters Association, more than nine in ten firefighters have seen their claims denied.

And it's the same thing in Ohio, where Mike Palumbo has worked his entire career.

Chrissy Palumbo said, "Like any other person who gets sick or gets hurt at work, the benefits should be available to take care of his health and replace his income." It's as simple as that. Break a leg at work, it's covered. "

In 2017, Mike and his family helped enact the law Michael Louis Palumbo Jr., a law that presumes that firefighters will receive benefits if they develop certain types of cancer at work. "Firefighters just want help, and now they have it – it's really important to me," said Mike two years ago.

Yet, when Mike was too weak against cancer treatments to work, his request was rejected.

He had only two months left before the official retirement to return his badge.

Ten months later, at the age of 49, he died.

"It's not like he was dead in a fire and you can say it today," Chrissy said.

"He died of all the fires," said Dokoupil.

"Yeah, are you telling me that because my husband died slowly from his job, he should not receive the same benefits as someone who died suddenly from their job?" And that's what counts for me."

Two years after Palumbo's death, half of the cancer claims reported by firefighters in Ohio have been dismissed or are pending appeal, including his own. Chrissy Palumbo says that she will continue to fight.

The country's fire departments have begun to focus on prevention.

In Arizona, Dr. Burgess says that one of the easiest things that firefighters can do to reduce the risk of cancer is to wash their clothes and wash themselves. at once after a call.

"When they go to a fire, they have carcinogenic chemicals on all their equipment," he said. "In the past, they did not separate their equipment, they can sit at home, maybe with their equipment and put it on the sofa, etc."

Tucson firefighters are also taught that to look "dirty" is not heroic, but dangerous. Air masks should remain in place even after the flames are extinguished. And many departments are investing in second equipment, so something clean (and, hopefully, no carcinogen) is always practical.

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Tucson firefighters eliminate all the chemicals they came in contact with during a fire.

CBS News


But for those who have been part of the force for years, like Boston Fire Chief Joseph Finn, the damage may have already been done.

Dokoupil asked, "Do you think that today, speaking of this, you are carrying vestiges of fires of the 80s?"

"Ugh, there's probably a good chance," Finn replied.

And he wonders, if we can not protect this generation of firefighters, who will manifest in the next generation to protect us all?

The youngest son of Chrissy Palumbo, she says, wants to be a fireman, like her father. "It scares me," she says. "He's imitating his father, he's missing a lot."

Dokoupil asked Nicholas Palumbo, "Do you remember when you decided to become a firefighter?"

"Since I went to the fire station for the first time," he replied.

How was it? "Basically, better than going to Disney, I can say that!"

Dokoupil asked Chrissy: "In the end, if you had your say as a parent, would you like Nicolas to become a firefighter?"

No, she says, "It's a good job.It's a good life.But our family has suffered enough."


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Story produced by Sari Aviv.


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