Partnership aims to fight occupational firefighter cancer

Published: Dec. 3, 2021 at 7:07 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Firefighters put their lives in danger to keep you safe.

But their leading cause of death in the line of duty isn’t fighting the flames.

It’s cancer.

A new partnership with the International Association of Fire Fighters and the American Cancer Society aims to help firefighters and EMS crews with the detection, treatment, and prevention of occupational cancer.

You can read more about the initiative here.

It’s a fight that hits close to home for local firefighters, four years after the Michael Louis Palumbo Jr. Act passed.

This week there was a significant announcement at FDNY Engine 55 in New York City, where the loss from 9/11 hasn’t ended.

“We’ve lost 343 Brave firefighters on 911. But unfortunately, we’ve lost hundreds since to the toxins that they were exposed to on 911 and still hundreds more battling predominantly through the curse of cancer,” said IAFF General President Edward Kelly.

From Ground Zero to everyday fires-- nationwide, one in three firefighters gets cancer in the line of duty.

“Every fire we go into is like a toxic soup of carcinogens and cancer,” said Lt. Bill Mastroianni with Euclid Fire Department.

He is also director of operations for the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters and a member of the local IAFF chapter.

It’s personal for him.

He has lost fellow firefighters and friends to cancer, including Mike Palumbo, a former Willowick firefighter and Beachwood fire captain diagnosed with brain cancer.

A law now bearing his name helps provide presumptive workers’ compensation coverage for firefighters with cancer.

“It was hard to watch, but I was also honored to be by their side by the battle and know what their family went through and what Mike has done for future firefighters,” Mastroianni said.

Mastroianni said this law had brought awareness to firefighters battling occupational cancer.

And in his 27 years as a firefighter, he’s seen the culture change.

“A dirty helmet used to be a badge of honor. Now it’s foolish. Marks on your face. A lot of people thought, oh, you look really cool with the black soot on your face. No, that’s cancer,” he said.

Now, many fire departments have a new protocol.

After a fire, they get their gear off right away.

“Because those toxins, those carcinogens, they’re going to off-gas, and they’re going to settle on everything in your fire truck,” Mastroianni said.

And as much good as the Palumbo Act has done for families, 19 Investigates found firefighters are still fighting.

“It’s cancer presumption. It’s presumed you got it from the job,” he said.

Since the bill passed in 2017, Mastroianni said more than 200 claims had been filed for cancer presumption.

About half, over 100 of those, were appealed by cities.

Ultimately 150 claims were accepted.

Firefighter cancer claims in Ohio since 2017.
Firefighter cancer claims in Ohio since 2017.(WOIO)

“We all took an oath to do what needs to be done. We’re just asking for the cities and the citizens we took an oath to continue to protect us so we can protect you,” Mastroianni said.

He wants to see cities step up and provide firefighters with an extra set of gear, which he said some already do, and accept more claims for cancer benefits.

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