By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Phoenix fire captain Gary Pykare underwent his latest cancer surgery several weeks ago, just as a commission that studied the incidence of cancer in Arizona firefighters was finishing its unprecedented study.
Now Pykare says he feels much better. Results from the commission's work, on the other hand, are inconclusive.
After three years of study, it appears unlikely that a definitive link between firefighting and cancer will soon be established. And that means cancer-stricken firefighters likely will continue to have a tough time getting their employers to allow workers' compensation claims.
Pykare has battled fires since 1964, and cancerous tumors since 1977. He's convinced he contracted his cancer on the job, a victim of the alphabet soup of toxic chemicals and combustibles firefighters routinely face.
He's not alone in his thinking. Studies done in Los Angeles, Seattle and Toronto have tended to show a much higher rate of cancer in firefighters than in the rest of the population. But scientists have been unable to determine whether firefighters contract cancer from battling blazes and chemical spills.
The state-funded Arizona commission's primary objective was to try to learn whether mortality and incidence rates for cancer among Arizona firefighters differ significantly from the rest of the population. It provides some good information, but it doesn't prove or disprove anything," says Dr. James Schamadan, who chaired the commission of four doctors and a biostatistician. (Schamadan also is president of the Scottsdale Memorial Hospital system.)
Schamadan says he's not surprised by the mostly unsubstantive results-which conclude in part that the mortality rate of 32 Arizona firefighters who have died from cancer in recent years is only slightly above" that of the general population of Arizona and the United States.
We didn't have enough Arizona firefighters in our sample to draw any major scientific conclusions," he says. It's kind of a wash."
The father of a firefighter, Schamadan also was a doctor for the Phoenix Fire Department. He spearheaded the effort to convince legislators to appropriate $100,000 to study cancer in firefighters. Governor Rose Mofford signed the bill into law in 1988.
The commission's inconclusive bottom line wouldn't seem to have helped supporters of a proposed cancer presumption" law now being debated at the Arizona State Legislature. And past efforts to add a presumption into the law that firefighters who contract certain types of cancer got it on the job have failed.
But, says firefighter's union official Mike Colletto, the bill-though watered down from the sweeping provisions its proponents originally contemplated-seems to have a decent chance of becoming law.
We feel we've got a fighting chance this time," Colletto says. And I say that even though we've got some high-powered enemies who oppose the whole idea."
Colletto is referring to some of the state's largest employers-cities and big businesses, including Arizona Public Service Company and Salt River Project-who traditionally oppose cancer-presumption laws because they fear higher insurance premiums and payoffs.
The lack of a firefighter's cancer-presumption law in Arizona (California has had one for several years) hurt fire captain Gary Pykare's chances a few years ago of winning a workers' compensation claim for what he considered job-related cancer.
There doesn't seem to be anything scientific for us to hang our hats on," says the 50-year-old Pykare. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure this out. When you mix some of these concoctions under the heat, you come up with chemicals that no one's ever seen before. If you tell me I didn't get this on the job, you're nuts."
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