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    Unhappy Edmonton FD: Capt Bob Chalmers

    Firefighters face more hazards than ever. New synthetics to blame says union boss as cancer claims another

    By ANDREW HANON

    Last Updated: 10th July 2009, 1:33am

    Chalmers, a 35-year veteran of the Edmonton Fire Department, died on Monday at age 60, following a six-year fight with leukemia.

    He's the second veteran Edmonton firefighter to be claimed by cancer in just over two weeks -- the sixth in recent years.

    And it's getting worse.

    "It's so much more dangerous than ever before because of the creation of new synthetics (in building materials)," said Greg Holubowich, president of the Edmonton Fire Fighter's union.

    INCREASING NUMBER

    He said in the last five or six years, fire departments across North America have seen an increasing number of long-serving veterans being diagnosed with cancer in their early 50s.

    Never mind the risk of fires in Edmonton's industrial and petrochemical plants. Holubowich said regular homes have more hazardous materials in them, for example the glues and resins in laminate flooring.

    "Structure fires are often more toxic and even burn hotter than they used to," he said.

    On average, 10 firefighters die of job-related cancer every year across Canada, said Jim Lee of the International Association of Fire Fighters in Ottawa.

    AMONG HEALTHIEST

    As new recruits, firefighters are typically among the healthiest people around -- they usually rate in the top 10% of the general population for fitness.

    And yet, they're up to four times more likely to be stricken with cancer.

    Holubowich said while firefighters' breathing apparatus is quite effective at keeping cancer-causing smoke out of their lungs, many of the carcinogens they're exposed to are absorbed through the skin.

    Airtight coats, pants and headwear, known as bunker gear, wouldn't work because it would get dangerously hot inside them, he explained.

    "I know industry is working on new suits that would prevent the toxins from hitting our skin, but still have breathability, but it's not there yet," he said.

    Before 2004, firefighters with cancer weren't eligible for workers compensation, as the Alberta government didn't recognize it as a job-related illness for firefighters.

    LONG WAY TO GO

    But there's still a long way to go. Only certain cancers are recognized.

    Chalmers's leukemia was recognized, so he was able to collect benefits while he was getting treatment.

    But 53-year-old Capt. Al Harris, who died June 20 of esophageal cancer, couldn't.

    Currently, the Alberta WCB recognizes eight forms of cancer in long-serving firefighters: leukemia, brain, bladder, lung (in non-smokers), kidney, colorectal, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and ureter cancer.

    UNION PRESSING

    The union is pressing to have three more added to the list: esophageal, testicular and breast cancer.

    Holubowich said firefighters put their lives on the line every day for the public, "and it would be nice to know that they and their families will be looked after should they get cancer because of it."

    Firefighters' unions are also pressing the federal government to establish a national firefighting database that will gather information on fires, causes and costs of fires across the country, along with data on firefighter deaths.

    WILL PAY TRIBUTE

    On Sunday, colleagues from across Canada will pay tribute to Chalmers at a full-dress procession and funeral in downtown Edmonton.

    His widow Eva was too grief-stricken yesterday to be formally interviewed, but said her husband was always proud of being a fireman.

    Even as the cancer overtook him, he told Eva that if he had it all to do over again, he wouldn't hesitate.

    The procession begins at 2:10 p.m. at Firehall Number One at 10351 96 St. and proceeds to the First Presbyterian Church at 10025 105 St.

    The ceremony begins at 3 p.m.

    ANDREW.HANON@SUNMEDIA.CA

    PHOTOCREDIT:

    Capt. Bob Chalmers, a longtime city firefighter, lost his six-year battle against leukemia on Monday. (Supplied) Capt. Bob Chalmers never regretted being a firefighter, even as he lay dying of work-related cancer.
    Attached Images Attached Images  

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