Firefighters say recognizing cancer risk is an uphill battle, especially in Quebec

Jenn Dawkins recalls the day in the spring of 2016 when she joined four other female firefighters in the BC Legislative Assembly to push for the inclusion of breast cancer among the presumed occupational illnesses covered by the provincial worker’s health and safety agency.

Vancouver firefighter Jenn Dawkins has lobbied for breast cancer to be included in British Columbia legislation as a presumptive occupational disease covered by the province’s workers’ health and safety agency. Three years later, she would be diagnosed with the disease that kills firefighters the most.David Harcus/The Canadian Press

Ms Dawkins was diagnosed with breast cancer three years later.

“I had a mastectomy and four months of chemotherapy at the start of the pandemic,” she said. Reconstructive surgery followed.

“It’s the real result of just going to work and doing my job,” said Ms Dawkins, who has since returned to fight fires in Vancouver, where she has worked for 22 years.

Ms Dawkins now wants other firefighters to be protected by legislation that makes cancer a suspected occupational hazard due to exposure to known carcinogens. Its Quebec counterparts are the least protected of any jurisdiction in Canada.

Ms Dawkins was covered for workers’ compensation because a year after her trip to the Legislative Assembly, British Columbia added breast cancer, along with prostate cancer and multiple myeloma, to the list of suspected cancers affecting firefighters. This meant that they no longer had to prove that their illness was directly linked to high-risk work.

British Columbia recently amended the Workers Compensation Act to include three more cancers – ovarian, cervical and penile – on a list that now has 16 suspected cancers.

Cancers affecting the reproductive system are adding up across much of the country, as more women take on the responsibility of fighting the fires. Benefits kick in after a certain number of years of work, between five and 20 years in British Columbia, for example, depending on the type of cancer.

Each province and territory has its own list of cancers that are presumed to be related to firefighting because workers’ compensation legislation is not enacted at the federal level.

The International Association of Fire Fighters and the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs support the recent introduction by Quebec MP Sherry Romanado of a private member’s bill on national standards for occupational cancers related to the fight against fires.

It says awareness is key to helping firefighters identify early signs of cancer for testing and treatment and calls for regular screening for the disease.

Chris Ross, president of the Montreal Firefighters Association, said he hopes the momentum of the bill which has garnered broad political support will help push the Quebec government to add more suspected cancers.

The province only recognized cancer as a high occupational hazard for firefighters last year.

Quebec has listed nine cancers as being linked to firefighting, the lowest number in the country, and Ross said the association was opposed to adding more cancers such as leukaemia, brain and breast cancer.

The association filed a lawsuit against its workers’ compensation agency on behalf of firefighters diagnosed primarily with brain, testicular and esophageal cancers as well as leukaemia, Ross said. He has won all of his cases, about ten so far, before the Quebec Labor Court, and a dozen settlements have been reached outside of this process, he added.

“We decided about eight years ago that every cancer recognized elsewhere would be prosecuted,” he said, adding that scientific evidence from multiple studies related to cancer in firefighters had paved the way for victory.

Quebec has convened a medical committee to recommend which cancers could be included in future legislation, he said.

However, Mr Ross said it is an unacceptable substitute for “political courage” to act in a province that treats firefighters as “second-class citizens”.

“At the end of the day, fires don’t burn any differently in Gatineau than in Ottawa. It’s not like you walk across the bridge and suddenly they’re more cancerous,” he said.

In Ontario, 17 cancers are suspected to be related to firefighting.

About 55 firefighters in Quebec are thought to have died of cancer in the past 12 years, but the figure is likely higher, Ross said.

Winnipeg Fire Department captain Alex Forrest said Manitoba was the first in Canada in 2002 to include five suspected firefighter cancers. It now lists 19 cancers, as in Nova Scotia and the Yukon.

Mr. Forrest, who is also a lawyer, helped draft legislation in all three jurisdictions before moving to Alberta and beyond as presumptive legislation spread across the country.

He was invited to Australia in 2011 to present scientific evidence on the link between firefighting and cancer and said he had also raised awareness among governments and organizations in Europe about the exposure of firefighters to agents. carcinogens such as arsenic, benzene and cadmium.

In 2012, Australia became the third country in the world, after Canada and most jurisdictions in the United States, to pass such legislation.

Mr Forrest said there was a lack of knowledge among epidemiologists about the dangerous levels of carcinogens, including the highly flammable chemical benzene, which is present in most fires, whether garbage , kitchen or large structures.

Firefighters’ protective gear can withstand over 1,000C, but it doesn’t protect them from carcinogens because their clothes have to “breathe”, Forrest said.

It is not the inhalation or ingestion of chemicals, but the absorption of particles through firefighters’ skin and into their bloodstream that is most dangerous, he said.

“Firefighters, over a career, will go to hundreds of fires. And you see that cellular manipulation begins to occur after three to five years, which predicts cancer outcomes.

Tim Baillie was diagnosed with two cancers after retiring from his 27-year career as a firefighter in Surrey, B.C.

“I was in customs, getting on a plane to Mazatlan. And it was like someone stabbed me in the right abdomen,” he said of his experience in 2016, when he found out he had kidney cancer “I ended up going to the ER and had a five centimeter cancerous growth fully encapsulated in my right kidney.”

In 2021, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which, like the first cancer, was listed under the presumptive legislation.

Baillie hopes all provinces will step forward to recognize the reality that cancer is one of the biggest killers of firefighters.

“It’s always about the money,” he said.

Municipalities that employed firefighters only pay slightly higher workers’ compensation rates to protect those who put their lives at risk simply by going to work, he said.

Firefighters also have to contend with provincial governments that are often slow to act, Baillie said.

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Martin E. Berry