Link Between Firefighting and Cancer Sought
|Tuesday, 03 August 2010|
Fort Myers News Press
Anthony Labruzzo was a muscular 5-feet-5-inches tall and 165 pounds.
He'd never smoked. He worked out every morning and prided himself on his chicken and vegetable diet.
But in October 2006, he and his wife, Cher, learned the golf ball-sized tumor in his throat was squamous cell carcinoma. His doctors were puzzled as to how a cancer commonly caused by tobacco use could show up in a non-smoker.
Until Anthony Labruzzo told them he was a firefighter.
But the cancer that spread to Labruzzo's lungs and bones wasn't covered by the law that ensures compensation for diseases that affect firefighters' hearts and lungs.
Florida is the largest of 21 states that doesn't include cancer in its so-called heart and lung law. State legislators have tried twice before to pass the bill, but were unsuccessful, partly because little statistical information exists.
If firefighters and other emergency workers are diagnosed with hypertension, tuberculosis, or heart disease while on the job, state law allows them to be paid the same wage.
Few statistics are available nationally either, but the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health hope to change that.
The organizations' new national study will look at 18,000 current and retired firefighters and examine the health risks they face because of the smoke, soot, and chemicals they inhale.
If studies like this show firefighters deserve more coverage, state Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, said changing the law is worth discussing.
"Our first responders put themselves in harm's way every day," Aubuchon said. "If there are gaps in the system, it's absolutely worth looking at."
Senator wants fix
For three years, Anthony Labruzzo and his family endured seemingly endless treatments and trips to cancer centers across the country. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills rolled in, and he saw the end of his 18-year career at the Fort Myers Fire Department.
Anthony Labruzzo battled cancer along with fellow retired Fort Myers firefighter Don Stonestreet, who died one month after Labruzzo.
State Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, said he believed the Florida law should be changed. Aronberg is also running for attorney general.
"If you've got two seemingly healthy firefighters die within months of each other from lung cancer, there's something there," he said.
After watching her husband and Stonestreet die, Labruzzo decided to bring awareness to the issue.
"I don't want anyone else to have to go through this," she said. "I don't know if we can change it, but it's a worthy case to try."
Danger of exposure
It started with a scratchy throat.
Then Anthony Labruzzo could feel the tumor when he pressed on his throat.
Later, doctors at MD Anderson in Houston would tell him they believed a fire at the Pep Boys tire shop on Cleveland Avenue about 10 years ago could have contributed to his cancer.
Labruzzo had been in the burning building the longest, breathing the rubber's thick smoke, said his friend Fort Myers Battalion Chief David Foster.
Throughout his treatment, Cher Labruzzo would remember times she'd seen her husband come home from fires with smoke under his nostrils.
Part of the issue of preventing cancer in firefighters is they are proud of how gritty and soot-covered they get, said Keith Tyson, regional director of Florida's chapter of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. Research shows that might do more harm than once realized.
"Not only are we inhaling toxic chemicals on a regular basis, we're learning we can absorb it through our skin," said Tyson, a former firefighter for Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue and a prostate cancer survivor.
It's difficult to pin down what causes cancer in firefighters, whether it's simply smoke exposure, from diesel exhaust or chemicals, Tyson said. That's why he said studies are needed.
Anthony Labruzzo died at Cape Coral Hospital in 2009, four days before Christmas. The 50-year-old was surrounded by a group of fellow firefighters.
A month later, Stonestreet, who was 60, died. Doctors caught the triathlete's lung cancer during a routine chest X-ray.
"He was in perfect health until they found this," said Jan Stonestreet, his wife of 33 years.
Both families continue to receive medical bills.
Cher Labruzzo remembers getting a $100,000 bill for her husband's care when he died.
"I didn't want to go to my mailbox," she said. "If it had a medical sticker on it, I didn't want to see it."
Anthony Labruzzo's fellow firefighters helped with his bills by holding golf and fishing tournaments.
"Had it not been for the fire department, I would have lost my house, everything," she said. "There isn't anything I wouldn't do for them."
The United States Fire Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is participating in a multiyear study of firefighters and cancer. By analyzing death and cancer cases in firefighters, the study aims to determine:
About the Florida heart and lung bill
If you are a firefighter or law enforcement officer, Florida workers' compensation laws may cover heart disease, tuberculosis and hypertension through the heart and lung law.
In most cases, it allows you to continue to earn the wage you make as a first responder.
For 30 years, firefighters in Florida have been covered. Law enforcement and correctional officers were added in 2002.
The law gives the presumption that heart disease is the result of emergency workers' stressful lives. It provides financial benefits to firefighters and law enforcement officers, who otherwise could not prove a link between employment and heart disease.
It does not include cancer.