New Jersey firefighter Gene Dannenfelser devoted his entire adult life to helping others. The former deputy chief spent hundreds of hours at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks, amidst the clouds of smoke, toxic dust, and fumes. He can still remember someone issuing him a flimsy paper mask for protection, even as he watched federal employees receive full respirators.
In 2014, more than a decade after the attack, doctors diagnosed Dannenfelser with lung cancer. He’s not alone: firefighters around the country are 14 percent more likely to develop cancer than the average citizen. Dannenfelser has had to endure both a lumpectomy and chemotherapy – painful, expensive procedures and ones for which he’ll get little financial assistance or worker’s compensation.
Politicians in D.C. are quick to praise firefighters after they’ve sacrificed their lives, but they do very little to protect the firefighters who are still active and in need of help. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) emphasized this hypocrisy, demanding, "we need not wait for a firefighter to die in order to honor [him]."
New Jersey, like the 14 other states that don’t have cancer presumptive laws, leaves firefighters particularly vulnerable. Without a way to receive worker's compensation, first responders must pay for cancer treatments and doctor's visits out-of-pocket. Unable to afford the steep costs, about 60 percent of firefighters die from some form of cancer.
Fortunately, a recent meeting between a New Jersey firefighter’s association and state lawmakers has made an important first step towards remedying, or at least learning more about this problem.
New Law May Save Lives Now and in the Future
On May 5th, in North New Jersey, lawmakers and former firefighters met to unveil a new and potentially life-saving law: The Firefighter Cancer Registry Act. The bill seeks to collect cancer data on full-time and volunteer firefighters across the country. The data will be given to researchers to create better safety practices and to learn more about the correlation between cancer and smoke exposure.
The law is a refreshing step forward in what's been an unnecessarily difficult struggle for our nation's heroes to receive support with their work-related health issues. In the recent past, bills like the Zadroga Act, which provides medical coverage to 9/11 first responders, struggled to be renewed by Congress.
In fact, it was only after specific Congress members were publicly shamed by major media outlets like the New York Daily News and celebrity activists like Jon Stewart that they agreed to officially renew the act, thus giving the men and women who risked their lives during 9/11 health coverage for the next 75 years.
Protecting Those Who Protect Us
At the root of the cancer problem are the toxic chemicals infused into modern homes. While flame-resistant modern furniture is less likely to go up in a blaze, the tradeoff is that it creates 10 times the amount of toxic gases and twice as much smoke. Blood sample studies have shown that residential firefighters have 3 times the average amount of flame retardant chemicals in their systems.
Ed Donnelly, a firefighter and president of the New Jersey State Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association said, “it’s not the fires, it’s not being out on the highways that kill us all the time, it’s the long-term exposure over and over and over again to the toxins and carcinogens that we are breathing in.”
This has been the truth for a long time – that the daily routines of first responders are often far more deadly in the long-run than the actual emergencies. The new law will finally give researchers more data to study the problem and hopefully find a solution. Senator Menendez summed up his sentiment regarding the law as, “we need to protect those who protect us.”
The Real Cost of Helping Real-Life Heroes
Though the cancer registry may be very useful, New Jersey still doesn't have cancer presumption laws. Firefighters who are at risk right now have little protection. In many cases it boils down to an issue of cost. Lawmakers claim they can’t afford the coverage, yet they routinely fund more expensive and less dire programs when it suits them politically. And while the state may wince at high medical costs, imagine the brutal financial toll that cancer takes on firefighters themselves, many of whom are lucky to make $40,000 a year.
Without men and women willing to risk everything for public safety, America would crumble into ashes. Protecting firefighters from painful deaths is, as Jon Stewart put it, “literally the least we can do.” It remains to be seen if New Jersey will make that tiny investment.