Firefighters battle for cancer coverage in Ohio

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The men and women who fight to save our homes are in the fight of their lives.

In the city of Youngstown, an average of 400 buildings burn each year. It is the busiest fire department per capita in the state and arson rates in Youngstown are.the highest per capita in the United States.

A memorial in Columbus remembers the firefighters who died in the line of duty. But the silent killer that more than half of firefighters face is not even considered line of duty deaths or even work place injuries in Ohio.

“You’re supposed to protect us from the dangers in the job situation. They are not doing it,” Youngstown Fire Battalion Chief Tim McGarry said.

Multiple studies, including one done by the University of Cincinnati, say toxic chemicals in fires seep into the uniforms and eventually into firefighters’ skin.

Those chemicals drastically increase the chance of developing nine specific types of cancer.

“Testicular cancer, 100 times more. Hodgkins Lymphoma, 50 percent,” McGarry said.

Cancer survivor and retired Youngstown firefighter David Bole was diagnosed with non-hodgkins lymphoma in 2003. He had no family history of that specific type of cancer so he put two and two together.

“It never really crossed my mind until I got sick how much I was exposed to,” Bole said.

After exhausting all the sick time he earned over his 22 years with the department, Bole decided to retire and cash out on a partial pension.

“It was the hardest decision I have ever made. I still live with it,” Bole said.

It paid for his medical expenses since he was not able to collect Workers’ Compensation.

“Something needs to be done,” Bole said.

Cleveland-area Republican State Sen. Tom Patton has tried to change the firefighter health care coverage laws twice but his efforts failed both times.

“There is clearly a link between firefighters and cancer versus their exposure to those chemicals,” Patton said.

Patton is pointing his fingers to local leaders.

“The pressure from the local officials on my colleagues was so great,” Patton said.

Patton is looking for support in his party and across the aisle at the statehouse in Columbus.

State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, said he would support another attempt to change the law.

“I think that it is something that is reasonable,” Schiavoni said.

The proposed bill would cover specific cancers that are likely caused by the toxins in the fires.

“We have to step up and do the right thing,” Patton said.

The cost for local cities and the state is unknown and it will be until a new bill is proposed. For those firefighters on the front line, they said the political juggernaut is playing with their lives.

“Obviously, public safety and firefighters are not important to them,” Youngstown firefighter Chris Weaver said.

Lawmakers know it won’t be easy getting the bill to the governor’s desk.

In the meantime, if a firefighter develops cancer on the job, all they can do is fight the state and the cancer, and hope to come out on the winning end.

“We are going in and risking our lives just to put a fire out. It’s dangerous enough,” McGarry said.

It is hard to tell exactly how many firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer because the statistics we have seen show the numbers of firefighters that have been identified. Some of the firefighters develop cancer shortly after being exposed to the chemicals, while for others it may be much later in their life before they are diagnosed.

For more information on the firefighter cancer study, click here.

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