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Whitehorse firefighters want more cancer coverage in updated legislation

Seven additional cases will be added to the list, but two more are still being negotiated.
A firefighter guides two volunteers simulating injuries from the mock plane crash to safety at the Whitehorse airport on Oct. 2, 2018. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

The Whitehorse Firefighters Association is asking for more cancers to be added to the list of presumptive conditions under health and safety.

“We’re one of the few industries that there’s almost no way we can ever possibly control the environment we go into, we try to control that with our gear but we still get exposed to these chemicals,” said Nicholas O’Carroll, representing the association. “There’s a lot of exposure with all the chemicals and all the plastics and stuff inherent in every building, they’re there in every fire.”

Right now there are 10 cancers listed as presumptive conditions within the legislation. Since 2011, when the legislation was most recently updated, science has developed that shows links between several more cancers, said O’Carroll.

The government is currently in the process of rewriting the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Act, allowing for changes.

Right now seven additional cancers are on the list to be added, including multiple myeloma, primary site prostate cancer, primary site skin cancer, primary site breast cancer, primary site cervical cancer, primary site ovarian cancer and primary site penile cancer.

“A lot of our members who come into the fire service are fitter than the average person and actually have a lower chance of getting cancers. But then as the exposures continue, we go from being lower than the general public to three to four times higher when it comes to cancers from our exposure in the workplace,” said O’Carroll.

“So this presumptive legislation basically acknowledges that there’s a lot of science out there showing that these types of cancers can be caused by the fire service.”

An additional two – pancreatic and thyroid – are still under negotiation.

Right now both pancreatic and thyroid cancer are not covered in any other jurisdictions.

The Yukon would be the first, but Richard Mostyn, the minister responsible for the Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board, said the science is still under review by the department.

“Currently, if the Yukon were to put it on their list, they’d be the very first jurisdiction in the country to add pancreatic cancer to their list. It would set a precedent for all the other boards in the country,” he said.

Mostyn said he has asked the Firefighters Association to provide peer-reviewed evidence for the department to review ahead of bringing the two cancers forward for the list.

“I’m certainly not against adding to the list. I’ve got intimate experience with pancreatic cancer. I know how terrible that disease is. But I really want to see what the evidence says about how those two cancers applied to firefighters,” said Mostyn.

“I think it’s important we’re in the business of using evidence to make our decisions,” he said.

He also noted that the change in the legislation will also allow for more conditions to be added more easily. Rather than being enmeshed in legislation, the presumptive list will be added under the regulations, meaning they can be changed by cabinet.

Mostyn said the new Workers’ Safety and Compensation Act will bring a number of important changes.

“It’s been something that’s been needed for a very long time. I’m really, really happy to be bringing it forward and I think it’s a great thing for the territory that is going to benefit all Yukoners,” he said.

O’Carroll insisted that the science exists for adding thyroid and pancreatic cancer to the list – and he said he has been getting support from the NDP and the Yukon Party ahead of the legislation being reintroduced in the upcoming fall legislative sitting.

“We have the science,” said O’Carroll. “We argue that this is the best time to introduce it. We want our firefighters to be the best covered.”

Contact Haley Ritchie at