Traverse City Record-Eagle


April 29, 2013

Firefighters seek workers' comp for cancer

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — In May 2009, then 36-year-old Sterling Heights firefighter Chris Slezak, went to his doctor on a Monday because he felt out of shape and worn out. By that Friday, Slezak, who was active and healthy his entire life, got his first round of chemotherapy for leukemia.

Slezak, whose leukemia is now in remission, said he believes it was caused by 16 years of battling burning, smoke-filled structures.

"I can't prove it, but somewhere down the line I was exposed to something," he said.

Because he couldn't prove it, Slezak didn't qualify for workers' compensation. That's because Michigan is among about 20 states without a cancer presumption for workers' compensation benefits for firefighters.

Now some Michigan lawmakers are reintroducing a long-standing effort to change that.

Under a bipartisan bill recently approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, skin, brain and kidney cancers would be among the cancers presumed caused by carcinogens firefighters are exposed to in smoke and debris. Firefighters wouldn't qualify for workers' compensation if they were a smoker within 10 years of their diagnosis.

Firefighters now must prove cancer is work-related in order to qualify, which they say is nearly impossible because the illnesses develop over time.

The measure is likely to face a tough battle in the Legislature. Opponents say it will cause insurance premiums to skyrocket, adding crushing costs for communities.

The debate dates back to 1998, when then-Gov. John Engler vetoed similar legislation and asked the Michigan Environmental Science Board to investigate the link between firefighting and cancer. The results of the investigation were mixed, but advocates say plenty of research now supports their argument.

A 2008 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health showed a moderately elevated risk among firefighters for colon and brain cancer, but found weaker evidence pointing to higher incidences of other cancers. The group is completing another study, which examines a larger population of firefighters over a longer time period, but those results won't be made public until next year.

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