We now know that firefighters and other first responders are at risk because of exposure to chemicals in the smoke that they are exposed to. In fact, marine toxicologist Susan Shaw, PhD, found that firefighters had alarmingly high levels of PBDE flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) in their blood immediately after fighting fires—three times higher than that of average Americans, who already have the highest PBDE levels in the world. Although the most toxic forms of these chemicals were phased out of production in 2004, they—along with newer, chemically similar flame retardants—remain in household items and dust. They are also persistent, bioaccumulative toxic substances that can actually become more harmful the longer they persist. PBDEs are endocrine disruptors and neurological toxicants that may have links to thyroid cancer. Shaw said the firefighters also had elevated levels of dioxin and furans—both potent carcinogens that occur when PVC and other common plastics burn. Although firefighters are known to have higher cancer risk than the general population—including double the risk of testicular cancer, no studies have linked their increased risk to specific chemicals. A massive, multi-year epidemiological study launched in 2010 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health may eventually help answer lingering questions.
A petition by Greg Heath of Westfield, Massachusetts is on Change.org, and we think he should be heard:
A fire can cause millions of toxic chemical combinations. We have become aware of the massive risks these toxins pose for first responders, who breathe them in, ingest them, and absorb them through the skin while putting their lives on the line. Most states have adopted “cancer presumptive laws,” meaning that if a firefighter gets cancer on the job, they are automatically awarded accidental disability to see them through their illness. But the increased rate of Parkinson’s Disease (PD), a degenerative brain disorder, in firefighters has mostly been ignored.
I am a firefighter who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I am not alone — while the rate of PD in the general population is 3 out of 1000, it is ten times as much in firefighters: 30 out of 1000. I am young to be experiencing this disease, but that’s often how it works for emergency responders, and there is mounting evidence that our exposure to burning chemicals is the culprit.
I have 12 years left until I reach retirement, and, unfortunately, I am not sure I’ll be able to keep working that long.
My state of Massachusetts has great presumptive laws for firefighters, not only for cancer, but for heart and lung disease as well. It is now time for our legislators to include Parkinson’s Disease among these illnesses. We cannot ignore the connection between toxic chemical exposure and PD anymore.
While PD usually develops slowly among the general population, symptoms often hit firefighters fast, seemingly out of nowhere. Research now suggests that toxin-induced PD has a more rapid onset than genetic PD, another indicator that we are, indeed, contracting this illness on the job. For those of us struggling with Parkinson’s, walking, talking, grasping and even blinking become increasingly difficult tasks to accomplish. Needless to say, continuing to work as firefighters while battling this disease is most often not possible.
Indiana recently became the first state to include Parkinson’s in its presumptive law. This has provided unimaginable relief to many firefighters, who were running out of sick time, and facing unemployment and massive medical bills due to their debilitating disease. We now must band together and demand that more states recognize the link between firefighting and PD, and include PD among the illnesses covered by their presumptive laws.
Please sign this petition to include Parkinson’s in Massachusetts’ presumptive law, which would allow firefighters with Parkinson’s to retire on full accidental disability.
You can sign Greg’s petition by clicking here.