The Alberta government has expanded workers' compensation coverage to firefighters if they contract esophageal or testicular cancer.

Until this week, firefighters who developed any of eight cancers, including brain, leukemia, and bladder, could qualify for coverage from the province's Workers' Compensation Board (WCB). Esophageal and testicular cancer weren't on the list.

Provincial officials announced the amended legislation Friday.

"This is something we owe to the people who risk their lives to keep us safe," said Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk. "By adding these two cancers to the list, we can provide compensation to firefighters and their families immediately instead of waiting for the results of complex investigations." 

For Sharon Harris, from Edmonton, the new regulations arrive too late. Her husband Al, a firefighter, died of esophageal cancer last year at age 53, just months before he planned to retire.

His claim to the WCB — that his cancer was linked to the nearly three decades he worked as a firefighter — was denied.

"Being told [that type of cancer wasn't] covered was a tough thing for me to have to tell Al, because he thought he would be [covered] for risking his life," Harris said.

"He loved being a firefighter and he wouldn't have changed that."

The Alberta Firefighters Association (AFFA) applauded the legislative changes.

"This coverage gives firefighters peace of mind that their families will be looked after should they succumb to this occupational disease," said AFFA Secretary Brad Hoekstra.

Research indicates that firefighters are at a greater risk of developing cancers from being exposed to toxic substances from burning buildings. Cancer rates among firefighters are up to five times higher than the general population, according to the AFFA.

"Everything in a home now is glues, Varsol, solvents, and those things burn at a much higher frequency and they give off chemicals that we never did see before," said Greg Holubowich, president of the Edmonton Firefighters Union.

Similar presumptive legislation exists in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

The Alberta government said it's open to expanding the list of coverable cancers, to breast cancer for example, if the research is there to prove it.