INVESTIGATION: How Ohio fails to help firefighters facing cancer

COLUMBUS, Ohio - An exclusive 5 On Your Side Investigation reveals how Ohio fails to protect the people willing to risk their lives to save ours

NewsChannel5 investigators found Ohio is one of just sixteen states without a law recognizing the link between fighting fires and cancer .

“I feel almost embarrassed as the state of Ohio,” said Ohio Senator Tom Patton (R-District 24.)

“There’s no other disabling injury that someone in Ohio will receive while working that we don’t take care of,” he said.

Since 2008, Patton has introduced what’s known as presumptive cancer legislation, not once, or twice, but four times in Ohio.

The proposed legislation would mean firefighters could receive money for medical costs, workers’ compensation, and survivor benefits for their dependents.

The latest version of Patton's bill (SB 27) was introduced in February of 2015. It was assigned to the Senate Insurance Committee. A year later, it has yet to be scheduled for a vote.

“We can't even get it out of committee,” Patton said.

Ohio Rep. Christina Hagan (R-District 50) introduced a similar bill in the House of Representatives last fall.

Her proposal (HB 292) also remained mired in bureaucracy.

The cancer connection

You may think flames are the most significant danger firefighters face as a result of their occupation.

You would be wrong.

NewsChannel 5 investigators found a growing body of scientific evidence shows fighting fires increases a person’s risk of several types of cancer.

The most significant study was done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health , a part of the CDC, in 2013.

Dr. Tom Hales was on the team that analyzed 60 years of data from more than 30,000 firefighters.

"There is an association between firefighting and cancer and that association does appear to be causal,” said Hales.

“We found that firefighters have increased risk for all cancers and that increased risk was primarily driven by six types of cancers,” he said.

“Those were what we call oral cancers; gastrointestinal cancers; respiratory cancers (lung) and genital, urinary cancers (bladder, prostate, kidney),” he said.

In 2006, University of Cincinnati researchers concluded firefighters had a higher risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, prostate, and testicular cancer after researchers reviewed 32 studies related to firefighters’ cancer risk.

A firefighter's toughest battle 

The study also linked glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, to fighting fires.

“That's the one thing I never thought: the risk of cancer and my job,” said Capt. Mike Palumbo, 48.

The Beachwood firefighter, a father of five, was diagnosed last fall.

“It just came across as a punch to the gut,” he said.

“The first thing that popped into my mind was my wife and children and how it was going to affect them,” he said.

“I have a 7 year old son and, you know, I thought about. . . we were doing something, where I was holding his hand, and I thought I may never feel his hand as a grown adult,” Palumbo said.

Palumbo would like to retire early to spend more time with his family. After all, he is just months away from having served 25 years with the department.

However, under the current system, Palumbo must return to work in some capacity so he can secure his full pension and benefits.

"It just really infuriates me that this is such a simple bill that could be passed and take care of my brother firefighters and their families and me and my family," he said.

"My time with them (my family) is, you know, the most important thing to me," he said.

How your tax dollars fund the opposition

So why won’t Ohio lawmakers pass legislation to help firefighters facing cancer?

The answer is simple. It's about money.

NewsChannel 5 Investigator Sarah Buduson went to Columbus to question Susan Cave, the executive director of the Ohio Municipal League.

The lobbying group is funded by Ohio cities and towns. 

It has used your tax dollars to oppose the presumptive cancer law  for firefighters for years.

When Buduson asked Cave why the Ohio Municipal League fought the legislation, she said, “One of the things we hear is it’s going to cost a good bit of money. . .  we got that from the workers compensation bureau so that was one of the things we based our opposition on,” she said.

The Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation said the law would increase premiums for any municipality with a fire department.

It estimates the total cost of a presumptive cancer law for firefighters at approximately $75 million a year.

When we followed up by asking, "Aren't we obligated to pay the bills?", Cave replied, "You know, you're being obnoxious about all this."

Firefighters take action

After Palumbo was diagnosed with cancer, his brother, Mark, took action. 

Also a firefighter, he is currently organizing a free seminar entitled “Firefighter Occupational Cancer Prevention and Awareness.”

The seminar is scheduled for Tuesday, March 1 from 9 a.m. to noon at the Cleveland Clinic at 3050 Science Park Dr. in Beachwood.

“The numbers are crazy,” said Steve Westcott,

Ohio Director for the Firefighter Cancer Network, an organization which provides assistance to firefighters and families in the event of a cancer diagnosis.

“We are getting cancer much more than someone who doesn't do our job,” he said.

During the seminar, Westcott will present a course addressing firefighters’ cancer risk and review the best practices to reduce firefighters' risk of being diagnosed with the disease.

Westcott is a former firefighter and cancer survivor, twice defeating leukemia.

“I never really was cognizant of that fact you really have that human expiration date,” he said.

“We all do, but when you know that yours is coming, possible sooner than others, that hits you pretty good,” he said.

After recovering from a bone marrow transplant, Westcott has devoted his life to educating and assisting firefighters battling cancer.

Those interested in attending the class should RSVP  formybrother27@gmail.com by Feb. 23.

The battle continues

Senator Patton and Rep. Hagan are now teaming up to work on yet another version of the presumptive cancer bill for firefighters.

The goal, said Hagan, is to come up with a proposal legislators will pass.

In the meantime, the Senate Insurance Committee has scheduled hearing on Patton's bill for next week.

However, the bill has still not been scheduled for a vote.

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