Fire Damage

New law recognizes that firefighters face job-related cancer risks

Jane Dee Hull turned around and smiled at the two widows who were standing behind her.

"I'm happy to have this bill in front of me -- at last," the governor said, moments before she signed into law House Bill 2393. "I know how important this is to you and everyone else."

Judy Pykare and Joan Shafer nodded, their eyes welling with tears. The women lost their husbands to cancer in the 1990s, after Gary Pykare and Dick Shafer fought fires for years in Phoenix.

The men also had lost their cases at the Industrial Commission of Arizona seeking workers' compensation. That happened, in part, because the state didn't have a law that presumes a firefighter who contracts cancer got it on the job.

Now, it does. The new law specifies which cancers firefighters are vulnerable to, including leukemia, lymphoma, brain, bladder, rectal and colon. And it creates the job-related "presumption," a huge plus for firefighters who may seek workers' comp benefits.

New Times reported in 1988 that there was an unusually high number of local firefighters suffering from cancer. But showing a causal link between an exposure and a subsequently contracted cancer is tricky. And scientists still don't know exactly what happens when chemicals burn in fires. However, several studies showed a much higher rate of cancer in firefighters than in the rest of the population.

Gary Pykare, for example, first contracted cancer in 1977 at the age of 36, more than a decade after he signed on with Phoenix Fire. In 1988, he filed a workers' compensation claim with the state, for what he claimed was "job-related" cancer. But the Industrial Commission rejected Pykare's claim.

Pykare, Shafer and others of their era wore canister masks at fires for years. Many of the veterans long resisted the safer scuba-type masks, believing their "toughness" would carry the day. Sometimes, it didn't.

Pykare, for one, died in May 1996, at the age of 54, of liposarcoma -- soft-tissue cancer.

Legislators had rejected the cancer-presumption law for more than a decade before this session. Fire union officials say the lawmakers rejected previous attempts largely because many of Arizona's largest employers feared higher insurance premiums and payoffs.

But this year proved to be different, in part because of Hull's historically close ties with Phoenix firefighters (the union has supported her politically for years).

"We've wanted this law for a long time," says Mike Bilecki, a top Hull aide who also is a longtime Phoenix firefighter.

 
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