Covering cancer on the job

Yukon firefighters are less protected than many of their provincial counterparts. They are exposed to some very harmful chemicals in burning buildings, said Whitehorse fire Chief Clive Sparks.

Yukon firefighters are less protected than many of their provincial counterparts.

They are exposed to some very harmful chemicals in burning buildings, said Whitehorse fire Chief Clive Sparks.

“Some chemicals, it only takes a few parts per million to be very harmful if you breath it in,” he said.

As a result, firefighters are at risk of developing cancer of the brain, bladder, kidney, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and leukemia.

Alberta, BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia have all recognized the link between certain cancers and firefighting, and now have legislation that recognizes certain types of cancer as occupational diseases.

But the Yukon doesn’t have presumptive cancer legislation.

“We’ve had two different firefighters who worked for the Whitehorse fire department who would have been eligible if this had been in place 25 years ago,” said Sparks.

Both men died of cancer.

“And the type of cancer would have been seriously looked at under presumptive cancer legislation,” he said.

“Presumptive legislation would help spell out that illness arising from toxins would be covered by the Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board,” said NDP Leader Todd Hardy, who raised the issue in the legislature on Tuesday.

Presumptive cancer legislation is growing across Canada, said local firefighter union president Brian Fedoriak.

“It’s a way to make it easier for families,” he said.

The legislation would cover all firefighters, including volunteers in smaller communities, he added.

“There’s a likelihood in the course of their career that firefighters could get one of these cancers, and the list just keeps growing.”

Sparks is “concerned, but not worried” about his exposure to toxins over the course of his career.

“When I started firefighting we were not encouraged to use a breathing apparatus,” he said.

“We only had two and were told to use them only when necessary.

“We’d crawl into burning buildings and stay low to avoid as much smoke as possible.”

But things have changed.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, they’ve virtually eliminated going in without a breathing apparatus,” said Sparks.

“And over the last 30 to 40 years the safety equipment has much improved, but you can still get exposed to harmful chemicals.

“Someone might take a mask off too early, or the wind could change.”

Although there is less exposure to toxins now, “we still need legislation to look after those who’ve been exposed,” said Sparks.

“I’m concerned that it’s possible to get cancer from the work I’ve done.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

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