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Calls for law to acknowledge high rates of cancer among firefighters - ‘Dying at record numbers’

Firefighters drove their engines to Parliament's doors today, wanting laws to acknowledge the high rates of cancer among them.

Research shows firefighters are twice as likely as those in other jobs to develop testicular cancer and they have high rates of other cancers as well.

"Firefighters are dying at record numbers, because of the nature of our job," Alex Forrest, president of the firefighters' union in Winnipeg, Canada told those gathered on Parliament's forecourt.

It's the toxic smoke, made up of harmful carcinogens from burning materials, that seeps into the skin of firefighters over many years on the job.

New Zealand's Professional Firefighters Union has international research to show they have a 102 per cent greater risk of developing testicular cancer than the general population, a 28 per cent greater risk of prostate cancer and 32 per cent greater risk of cancer in the brain.

The firefighters at Parliament were all aware of friends or colleagues affected by the alarming statistics.

"Not only have we lost people but people are currently undergoing cancer treatment," said Craig Campbell, a firefighter in Porirua.

Rochelle and Zoe are recent fire recruits who say they've heard about guys who've previously died of cancer.

"Everyone speaks so highly of these guys, and they lost their lives due to cancer," Zoe said.

Wellington firefighter Trevor Tofts is aware of at least four cases in Wellington alone, saying "they've basically had to fund it themselves."

Others, like Don Bowker, dealt with the pain of an operation to remove his prostate, after nearly 50 years on the job.

"Why aren't we talking about this?

"I made it quite open, I put out an email, explained that I was having my operation. That was devastating. I didn't know but for men it's the third-worst operation you can have."

Firefighters want access to ACC entitlements like loss of wages and treatment costs for cancer. Currently, they say it's impossible to prove to ACC that years of fighting fires is what caused their illness.

"If a New Zealand firefighter dies in the line of duty because of occupational cancer, they are ignored by their government," Mr Forrest said.

He's convinced governments in Canada, the US and Australia to adopt legislation that presumes a firefighter's cancer is most likely caused by their work.

Here, the minister responsible for the National Fire and Emergency Service is on board.

"I wrote a letter directly to the Minister of ACC saying these firefighters need to have that presumptive legislation passed for the particular cancers that research shows they are making themselves vulnerable to," Tracey Martin said. 

ACC Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said he's met with firefighters and their union, and has since asked officials for advice.

"The prudent thing to do is wait for that to come in and I'll make decisions after it does," he said.

But firefighters say they don't have the luxury of time.

"When there's a house fire and there's lots of smoke and there's somebody inside, we're going in," said Kevin Crume, a firefighter in Palmerston North.

"In the short time I've been a firefighter I've seen too many of my friends die of cancer, and that's actually quite a difficult thing to see."

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Research shows the risk of testicular cancer for firefighters is double that of other jobs. Source: 1 NEWS