Christine Stuart photo
Wallingford Mayor William Dickinson, flanked by Ron Thomas and Robert Labanara (Christine Stuart photo)

A group of mayors and town managers on Thursday visited the state Capitol to warn lawmakers of the fiscal implications of a bill that would change workers compensation law for firefighters.

The bill, currently on the House calendar, would “give paid municipal and volunteer firefighters a rebuttable presumption that numerous types of cancer, specified in the bill, are due to their work as firefighters.” The municipality would then be responsible for proving to the Workers’ Compensation Board that the cancer the firefighter contracted was not a result of their job.

Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Deputy Director Ron Thomas said the bill would be a “huge unfunded mandate” for municipalities, adding that the state’s 26,000 firefighters already have the option to file workers’ compensation claims if they believe their illness is related to their job.

Wallingford Mayor William Dickinson pointed out that most, if not all, of these firefighters are offered health insurance and he reiterated that firefighters have the ability to file a workers’ compensation claims without this legislation.

He said in addition to the health benefits, if these firefighters succeed in a workers’ compensation award, then they also receive a salary.

“The economy is in chaos. The state can’t provide the money for this,” Dickinson said. “Where are we going to find the money?”

Municipal officials said a similar presumptive rebuttal regarding heart and hypertension for police and firefighters that was sunset in 1996 cost them $20 million a year.

But firefighters argue there’s a reason for the legislation, which has broad bipartisan support.

“The toxic atmosphere that we work in on a daily basis holds hidden poisons ready to attack our bodies, long after the fire is out,” Richard Hart, the legislative liaison for the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut, testified in February in favor of the legislation.

Hart argued that cancer in fire service is real. He said the science supports it.

Hart pointed to testimony offered by Francesca Litow, an adjunct associate professor at the John Hopkins University Bloomfield School of Public Health.

Litow testified in February that studies show firefighters are at a higher risk for cancer than the general population because of the toxic chemicals they are exposed to on the job.

Litow told lawmakers that studies of the chemicals contained within smoke that firefighters commonly encounter have clearly documented reason for concern about these exposures. She said smoke is a complex mixture of cancer-causing chemicals from combustion.

A 2006 analysis of data from 32 studies that screened firefighters for 20 different cancers found that risks for 10 types of cancer were significantly increased. The risks for the other 10 cancers they screened were increased, but not in a statistically significant way. Since that time, two other studies have been published that show firefighters have a statistically significant increase of incidence and death from six cancers. And, according to Litow, a study of 16,422 firefighters from five Nordic countries found that firefighters have an increased risk of all cancers combined compared to residents who were not firefighters.

But Manchester Town Manager Scott Shanley pointed out that certain genetic markers also have been tied to cancer.

“We just don’t know enough about cancer to make these kinds of determinations,” Shanley said.

He added that “there are so many unknowns on this. It’s a totally unpredictable piece of legislation.”