Firefighters and Cancer

09.25.2019 Written by: Henningson & Snoxell, Ltd.

mary beth boyce

Unfortunately, firefighters suffer from a higher incidence of cancer than the general public due to their exposures to toxic carcinogens throughout the course of their career. The National Fire Protection Agency recognizes that firefighters are exposed to toxic chemicals as an essential function of his or her job duties, “exposure to toxic fumes, irritants, particulates, biological (infectious) and nonbiological hazards, and/or heated gasses, despite the use of personal protective ensembles and SCBA.” NFPA 1582, 5.1.1(3). The safety equipment provided by departments do not completely negate the risk of exposure to carcinogens and toxic environmental dangers. Firefighters do not get to wait and see to determine if a fire is releasing toxic chemicals before they begin their work.


The Link Between Firefighting and Cancer

Firefighters and Cancer

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) complied a monograph that evaluates the link between firefighting and cancer: “IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans; Volume 98: Painting, Firefighting and Shiftwork.” The IARC identified exposures identified with combustion commonly present at municipal fires. Despite personal protective equipment with varying levels of efficacy, firefighters have been and are still exposed to these carcinogens while performing their normal job duties. Firefighters may come into contact with these carcinogens through inhalation as well as skin contact such as soot deposits on the skin or even deposits that are present on or inside his or her PPE.

Firefighters might not even know the particular carcinogens he or she has been exposed to throughout his or her career. Departments do not identify every chemical released from each material burned onsite. Warehouse fires pose different dangers than residential fires. Our understanding of the dangers firefighters are exposed to has also changed over time. While a firefighter today would not enter a burning building without a mask, this was not always the case. However, a firefighter of 20 years ago might not have been exposed to the same types of plastics present in burning electronics or flame-retardant clothing today.


The Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Act has acknowledged this reality and a firefighter who is exposed to carcinogens identified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and develops certain types of cancer is presumed to have sustained a work injury. The Firefighter Presumption Law set forth in Minnesota Statute 176.011, subdivision 15(c) states:

“a firefighter … unable to perform duties in the department by reason of a disabling cancer of a type caused by exposure to heat, radiation, or a known or suspected carcinogen, as defined by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the carcinogen is reasonably linked to the disabling cancer, is presumed to have an occupational disease.”

What this law means is that in work comp, certain types of cancers may shift the burden of proof from the employee to prove he or she sustained a work injury, to the employer or insurer to prove that the employee did not sustain a work injury.


Cities rarely, if ever, admit liability when firefighters bring work comp claims for medical expenses and wage loss for developing cancer as a result of his or her work duties. Medical expenses can be extremely high. However, with the right evidentiary support and with the assistance of Minnesota Statute 176.011, subdivision 15(c) these claims may be successfully litigated, entitling firefighters and their family the assistance they need when they become ill with prostate cancer, testicular cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, bladder, kidney, lung or other types of cancers. Firefighters may be entitled to wage loss, rehabilitation benefits, permanent partial disability benefits, medical expenses, retraining benefits, and even death benefits.

Not all workers’ compensation attorneys have as much experience successfully bringing claims on behalf of firefighters who developed cancer as a result of their work duties. Ask if he or she has successfully tried a cancer case on behalf of a firefighter who developed cancer in the line of duty.

If you or someone you love is a firefighter who had developed cancer which you believe to be related to work as a firefighter or a volunteer firefighter, contact Mary Beth Boyce of Henningson & Snoxell, Ltd. at (763) 560-5700 for a free, no-obligation consultation.

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