9 Investigates: Push to reduce cancer risk for firefighters

New numbers released on CFD cancer insurance claims

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cancer is killing more firefighters than fires. It's a crisis that Channel 9 has been investigating for a year.

The CDC reports firefighters are 14 percent more likely to die from cancer than the average person.

Eyewitness News learned about the new push happening in North Carolina to protect firefighters.

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It only takes a few minutes for these firefighters to fill out the sample survey they've been given, but their simple responses could save their lives.

New numbers released on CFD cancer insurance claims

"You all (firefighters) are at a really elevated risk of cancer because of what you do," said Mellisa Wheeler, Director of Disparities and Outreach for Levine Cancer Institute.

Wheeler asked firefighters for their input on the survey during a focus group held at the Charlotte Fire Department headquarters in late September.

Levine researchers are holding seven meetings with firefighters across the state as they create a survey for firefighters to help pinpoint why so many firefighters are getting cancer.

"We are taking a bullet that doesn't show up for years and it takes years for that bullet to do damage, " said Retired CFD Firefighter Garry McCormick.

McCormick told Eyewitness News that when he was diagnosed with Melanoma in 1997, it didn't occur to him it might have been caused by his job.

"Our mind is on life safety, we are there to rescue someone having the worst day of their life," McCormick said.

Officials are racing to uncover what's putting firefighters at risk and to add more support for those who get sick.

In a 2017 9 Investigation, we told you the Charlotte Fire Department implemented new practices to protect firefighters from toxins covering their gear. The department created a cancer task force after three of their own died within one year.

"It's nothing less than a scourge. It is taking its toll," said Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Firefighters.

Schaitberger said cancer prevention is one of the top priorities leaders discussed at their bi-annual conference in Charlotte in September. Last month, the union honored firefighters lost in the line of duty nationwide. They added 271 names to the memorial wall.

Schaitberger said 211 of these firefighters died from cancer.

Eyewitness News Anchor Brittney Johnson asked Schaitberger, "Is there enough in place right now to protect firefighters?"

"I don't want to just say no because we are making great progress, but there is so much more to be done," Schaitberger said.

Schaitberger believes chemicals in debris from burned homes is a big factor. They're battling chemical companies to stop using them.

They're also pushing lawmakers to recognize the danger.

Forty-three states now have "presumptive laws" that assume a firefighter's cancer diagnosis is related to the job and gives benefits to help them. North Carolina is one of only seven states that do not.

It only offers benefits for the families of firefighters who die from certain cancers.

"Someone told me once, I put myself out there, I sacrificed myself for the citizens of this city and then they didn't feel like no one was there to have their back when this happened," said Tom Brewer, President of the Charlotte Firefighters Association Local 660.

Brewer says the association is preparing to launch another effort after the midterm elections.

"We are going to ask those legislators hey let's take care of those people. We are on the front lines, we deserve to take care of those brothers and sisters who get cancer," Brewer said.

And firefighters also hope that what they learn from Levine's research will prevent others from getting cancer in the future.

Advocates say any improvements will have to be made by lawmakers and they're optimistic about having enough momentum to move forward.

In the last legislative session, NC lawmakers added an additional cancer to the list of diseases that will qualify for death benefits, bringing the total to four.  It also doubled the amount of money families receive from $50,000 to $100,000.

Right now, Levine is working to incorporate the input from focus groups into the survey before administering it.

Levine Cancer Institute is holding a cancer summit for firefighters in December.

The NC Firefighter Cancer Alliance also has resources for firefighters and families across the state looking for information on cancer prevention, education and support.

To learn more, click here

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