Calif. firefighters' cancer presumed job-related

Active full-time and volunteer firefighters statewide who become ill with cancer can claim their disease is job-related without proving it

By Lora Hines
The Press Enterprise

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Active full-time and volunteer firefighters statewide who become ill with cancer can claim their disease is job-related without proving it, as was the case of a Riverside firefighter whose funeral was last week.

California is one of two dozen states that presumes firefighters who become ill with all cancers and leukemia get the disease as an occupational consequence. The presumption, enacted more than 20 years ago, lasts up to five years after termination of service.

Other firefighter presumptions in California's labor code are heart conditions, hernia, pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood-borne infectious diseases, meningitis and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA.

Typically, most employees must prove work-related illnesses, injuries and diseases. Presumption codes require employers to prove that firefighters were not exposed to disease or cancer-causing material as a result of work, which could be almost impossible to do, said Tom DeSantis, Riverside's assistant city manager.

Few Riverside firefighters have reported becoming ill with cancer, he said. Eric Botkin, who recently died following a two-year battle with glioblastoma, a highly aggressive brain cancer, was the only firefighter who DeSantis said he could recall.

Fire officials have said Botkin's cancer was work-related.

An estimated 20,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with brain cancers annually. More than half of all adult brain cancers are glioblastoma. Few people live more than three years.

Glioblastoma experts at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and City of Hope Helford Clinical Research Hospital in Duarte say genetic disorders have been linked to the disease. Other possible causes have not yet been identified, despite speculation about cell phone use and electromagnetic radiation, they say. Research does not indicate that firefighters are more at risk of getting brain cancer than anyone else.

"There is no concrete evidence that what you do causes it," said Dr. Robert Prins, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at UCLA. He has been researching glioblastoma for 15 years. "People have been looking pretty hard. There's a huge amount of work that needs to be done."

DeSantis wouldn't discuss Botkin's case. Generally, a firefighter's cancer diagnosis would be submitted to Riverside's workers' compensation division for review.

Tim Strack, president of the Riverside City Firefighters' Association, said he helped Botkin file his workers' compensation claim following his October 2007 diagnosis. City officials approved the claim after about a week, Strack recalled.

Some firefighters don't file cancer workers' compensation claims even though the law allows it, Strack said. Riverside's fire department documents possible cancer exposures on its activity reports, he said.

"Our guys aren't out there to have the city pick up all their illnesses," he said.

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