N.W.T. firefighters want compensation for job-related cancer

Firefighters in the N.W.T. say more job-related cancers should be added to the list of illnesses they can claim compensation for.
Manitoba firefighter, Alex Forrest, says firefighters absorb dangerous toxins when fighting fires. 'When we're fighting a fire, up to 20 to 30 times the level of absorption occurs because of the heightened temperature of our skin,' he says. (Richard Gleeson/CBC)

Firefighters in the territory are calling on legislators to expand the list of work-related illnesses they can be compensated for.

The firefighters want five different kinds of cancer added to the list.

Research shows the cancers can be caused by toxins firefighters absorb from burning materials.

When firefighters work in burning buildings fire, heat and smoke aren't the only dangers. Plastics and other modern materials used in buildings emit cancer-causing gases when they burn.

A Manitoba firefighter, Alex Forrest, says they absorb the gases through their skin.

"When we're fighting a fire, up to 20 to 30 times the level of absorption occurs because of the heightened temperature of our skin," Forrest says.

"After a fire, we'll take off our gear and take a shower and it will be black, because it's coming through to our body."

Forrest, a member of the International Association of Firefighters, was in Yellowknife this week helping local firefighters lobby the government to add the cancers to the list of illnesses firefighters can get compensation for.

The Northwest Territories and Nunavut Workers Safety and Compensation Commission supports the move, says president David Grundy. He says the only reason the cancers are not already on the list is that the last time it was updated -- about four years ago -- research had not yet established a link between firefighting and the cancers.

The changes have to be made through an amendment to the law governing the WSCC. Firefighters are hoping politicians make the legislative change soon.

The president of the Yellowknife Firefighters Association, Kevin Hynes, hopes all firefighters in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut will get the extra coverage.

Yukon expanded it's coverage in 2011. It includes about 400 full-time, part-time, volunteer and wildland firefighters in the territory.

Heart attacks suffered within 24 hours of fighting a fire are presumed to be job-related, as are at least 10 cancers that regularly haunt the firefighting profession, including lung, brain and kidney cancer.