Rep. Josh Gottheimer, with the support of national and state firefighter’s unions, is spearheading a bipartisan bill to fund a national program that screens firemen for cancer, expanding on a program currently in place in New Jersey.
The Firefighter Investments to Recognize Exposure to Cancer Act (FIRE Cancer Act) would be a $700 million federal investment so that all firefighters—career and volunteer—across the U.S. can access multi-cancer early detection and other preventative tests at no out-of-pocket cost.
“This is something that is vitally needed,” said New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association (NJ FMBA) President Edwin Donnelly in an interview with North-JerseyNews.com. “Early detection is shown to save lives. If you can find out early on that you have these markers for cancer, you can be treated.”
Leading Cause of Firemen Deaths
The numbers cited by union leaders and lawmakers show why there is a push: Between 2002 and 2019, cancer caused 66% of the professional firefighter line-of-duty deaths, firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer, and a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer than the general American population.
“What’s not often talked about nearly enough is the silent killer they come home with after putting out the fire. Given the rate of cancer that we are seeing, it is incredibly important that we sound the alarm,” said Gottheimer. “If you look at the statistics, we have a five alarm fire roaring with firefighters in this country. One of the best ways to put out the fire is to get early screening to get early detection.”
Cause for Cancer Rise
A leading reason for the increase comes from the fact that today’s homes and buildings are filled with an assortment of building materials that are making firefighters sick.
“Years ago when you went into a house, everything was wood and natural elements,” said Donnelly, who praised Gottheimer for his leadership in pushing for a national program. “Today, with all of the plastics that are in a house, they are really putting off nasty carcinogens that we are not only breathing in but we are getting in our body through our bunker gear.”
As a result, firefighters have new protocols from when they return from a fire to fight off the toxins on to their uniforms, undergarments and skin: immediately taking shower, cleaning their gear, especially their face pieces. Firemen are at a higher risk due to their the sweating opens up pores that make them susceptible to carcinogens
“We have really evolved in making sure that we are taking care of ourselves a lot better than we used to years ago,” said the union president.
The program Gottheimer and firefighters want involves a series of screenings: a cardiopulmonary group for skin, mouth, and lymph node evaluations; the GRAIL blood testing for cancer screening; and an ultrasound screening for thyroid, bladder, and testicular cancer.
“Last year, GRAIL published the results of a study of almost 6,700 participants aged 50 years or over,” said the Bergen County lawmaker. “Of 92 participants flagged with a potential cancer signal, about 35 participants were diagnosed with cancer. All but 10 of these diagnoses were for cancers that did not have routine cancer screening programs in place.”
Screening would be scheduled every three years after the initial screening. In New Jersey, professional firefighters currently have access to cancer testing. A bill to get the same screenings for volunteer firefighters is currently being worked on in Trenton.
Early Detection Key
“That has been very, very helpful in detecting early cancers,” Donnelly said about the screenings. “When you catch it early, you are saving lives and ultimately saving money in the long run.”
The bill’s co-sponsor in the House is Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-NY), who was a fire chief before becoming a lawmaker on Long Island. Gottheimer is hopeful that a U.S. Senate companion bill will be introduced in the next month or so.
Besides the NJFMBA, The FIRE Cancer Act is endorsed by the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association, and the National Association of Government Employees.
“(Firefighters) are putting their lives on the line running into fires to protect us,” said Gottheimer. “Everyone recognizes that (this program) just makes sense.”
The 5th District Congressman is modeling his legislation on the Assistance to Firefighters Grant, created two decades ago by Rep. Bill Pascrell and has awarded $9 billion to equip and train local fire departments in the ensuing years.
“We look at this the same way. It is going to take time,” said Gottheimer. “Our plan is to build support, get members of Congress to back the bill, you have all the firefighter unions behind it. I have heard nothing but incredible feedback from members on it. We will…get it across the finish line.”
Donnelly said combining the FIRE Cancer Act with the National Cancer Registry to track cases will help “in time pinpoint the cancers and the ages of the firefighters that are getting (sick). This will save firefighters lives.”