SUSAN LEBLANC: Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to speak to our bill to expand the presumptive coverage for occupational cancers available to firefighters in Nova Scotia.
We all know that firefighters are there for all of us when we need them. We tuck our kids into bed at night knowing that if the unthinkable happens and there is a fire, there will be people who will come to help us, and they will come quickly. We owe it to our firefighters to extend these benefits to them. Too many people have already died without presumptive coverage. They cannot afford to wait any longer.
Firefighters' work is giving them cancer at rates much higher than the general population. In comparison to all causes of fatality in the general population, the cause of death in firefighters is two to three times more likely to be due to cancer, even though firefighters tend to lead healthier lifestyles as a requirement of their work.
Last year, a study from the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia found that firefighters are 86 per cent more likely to die from cancer than from any other fatal illness. Cardiovascular disease accounted for just 5 per cent of fatality claims, and respiratory disease accounted for just under 2 per cent.
The study which was conducted with the University of Fraser Valley and the British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit reviewed 10 years of firefighter health and injury data.
Cancer rates among firefighters also increase dramatically with age, with the 35- to 39-year-old group accounting for only 1 per cent of workplace fatal cancer claims; the 60- to 64-year-old group accounts for 17 per cent of fatal cancer claims; and the 65 and older group makes up nearly half of the claims.
What is making firefighting more dangerous, or so dangerous? Fires have changed over the course of the past 20 years. The things that we keep in our homes are making fires more toxic than they were 20 years ago. Consumer goods are increasingly made of synthetic materials and coatings. The plastics, foams, and coatings in our homes create a toxic soup of carcinogens when they burn. Fire experts say the synthetic materials create hundreds of times more smoke than organic ones.
Flame retardants alone, ironically - like the ones covering your couch or your curtains - double the amount of smoke and increase toxic gases tenfold. Your TV, your child's Barbie, your Saran Wrap, your couch - all of them can be poisonous when they ignite and their fumes are inhaled.
In 2012 Susan Shaw, the executive director of the Shaw Institute and a professor of environmental health sciences at the State University of New York in Albany, had paramedics draw the blood of 12 firefighters after they responded to a fire. Their samples contained three times the level of flame retardants than the general population. Their blood levels of perfluorooctanoic chemicals, which are used as non-stick coatings, were twice as high as those of the World Trade Center first responders.
While all people are exposed to these household chemicals, fires magnify the exposure. When flame retardants and other compounds burn, they create reactive oxygen species, molecules that bind to DNA and cause mutations that can lead to cancer. In a fire situation, the extreme heat helps chemicals enter the body through the skin. With every 5 degrees the body temperature rises, skin absorption rates increase by as much as 400 per cent.
Continuous exposure to these carcinogens has also cumulative effects. The longer a firefighter is in the line of duty, the more likely they are to develop a workplace-related cancer. That's a lot of statistics and a lot of facts to take in. It's a lot of horrifying information.
We know these people are putting themselves in harm's way to take care of us and now it is time for us to take care of them. The NDP is calling for presumptive coverage for firefighters through the WCB to be expanded to cover a longer list of cancers and more accurate latency periods.
Mr. Speaker, back in 2003 Nova Scotia was a leader on the national stage when it came to presumptive coverage. We introduced some of the first legislation to guarantee that firefighters wouldn't have to fight to prove their illnesses had developed as a result of exposure to the carcinogens that are part of their jobs. Since then, we have fallen behind. Every province has updated their list of eligible cancers. Nova Scotia is at the back of the pack, only covering the six originally outlined.
Over the past 15 years, a number of major cohort studies have been undertaken, having compared cohorts of thousands of firefighters to the general population and have found that firefighting puts people at significant risk of developing ureter cancer, penile cancer, testicular cancer, esophageal cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, skin cancer, digestive tract cancer, multiple myeloma, pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer, and cervical cancer. That's in addition to brain, bladder, kidney, colon, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and leukemia.
I'd like to take a moment to point out three of those cancers: in particular the breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and cervical cancer. In the original list or in the list that is currently covered of cancers in Nova Scotia, there are no cancers that are directly related to female anatomy, particularly related to female anatomy. That's an interesting thing to note.
In the coverage that we're asking for or calling for we include three types of cancers that are particular to females. Mr. Speaker, it is very possible that the very females who Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency and all of the other firefighters and organizations in Nova Scotia are looking to attract to become part of their firefighting teams, just won't do it because of the risks of those cancers, and the fact that they wouldn't be covered, should they terribly be affected by those cancers.
Those women are in their child-bearing years - why would they subject themselves to that kind of danger when they can't be covered or make sure that their families would not be covered? I just want to point that out, especially as we draw closer to International Women's Day.
So, brain, bladder, kidney, colon, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and leukemia were covered in 2003. We need to pass legislation, now, to ensure that these cancers are rightfully recognized as workplace illnesses, so that firefighters can get the supports they need.
Objections from the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education about taking time to do it right, are not merited. The minister has said that he is looking to overhaul the Workers' Compensation Act, and not make amendments. Frankly, Mr. Speaker, firefighters need presumptive coverage now, they cannot afford to wait any longer.
We in the NDP also want changes and improvements to the Workers' Compensation Act, generally. We are not going to stand in the way of any changes that we think are positive, but the fact that the minister is currently working on the Act is not a reason to delay these changes now.
The research has been done, the evidence is clear, we're happy to share what we've learned to expedite the process, but the process must be expedited. We cannot wait until 2020 to make these changes.
Mr. Speaker, last year I was home alone with my children and an alarm went off in our home. I thought at first it was the fire alarm, but I was weirdly shocked by that because there wasn't any smoke, there wasn't a thing going on and I didn't understand what was happening. Quickly, I realized that it was the CO alarm. I freaked out, got my kids outside, called 911 and the firefighters were there within, I would say, three minutes. They checked out my house, I was home alone with my kids, they checked out my house and they made sure it was safe for me to go back inside with my little ones. When everything was okay, they played with my son and it was a big, happy thrill.
My point about telling you this story is that when I called 911, that fire truck was in front of my house in minutes. They responded immediately, they have to. When anyone calls 911 here, or anyone across the province, we expect that someone is going to respond within minutes.
Firefighters, Mr. Speaker, imagine if we had to wait the amount of time that they've waited for this coverage. Imagine that. We wait three minutes, they wait another year until the minister is satisfied that all of the work he has done with the Workers' Compensation Act is completed. These people cannot afford to wait any longer.
Today we're joined in the gallery by Captain Paul Edwards. He's been a firefighter for 31 years and he is a six-year survivor of prostate cancer. As I'm sure Captain Edwards will tell you, when you have prostate cancer the last thing you need to be doing is filling out forms and compiling evidence to convince Workers' Compensation that your ailment is directly related to your work environment. What you should be doing instead is resting, getting the treatments you need, spending time with your family. To suggest anything else is utterly ludicrous.
Expanding presumptive coverage immediately will make a huge difference in the lives of firefighters in Nova Scotia. We need to expand presumptive coverage and enact the latency periods we've proposed, and that will make every single firefighter in the province eligible for the federal Memorial Grant Program for First Responders, regardless of the municipal injury coverage policy for firefighters.
That means that whether or not any given volunteer department's municipality pays into WCB on their behalf, families of firefighters who have died as the result of an occupational illness that has been deemed to be primarily resulting from their employment, or volunteer work as a first responder, would be eligible to receive a $300,000 lump sum, tax-free, memorial benefit to honour the service of their loved one.
We know there is more work to be done. Researchers in British Columbia are recommending the creation of a national firefighter wellness surveillance system to help address the soaring cancer rates and other key firefighting health risks. We can do this now and continue to make changes.
While our fire departments have policies in place to keep firefighters as safe as possible on the job, there is a certain amount of risk that cannot be prevented, and that's where we come in, Mr. Speaker. All of us in this room, we have the power in this House to change our laws when they need changing, to act swiftly on issues that are urgent.
We are being presented with an opportunity to make a huge difference in the lives of the people who protect our families and communities every single day, who put themselves, literally, in harm's way every day. We have a chance to act swiftly, just as firefighters need to act swiftly when 911 is called. I hope that all of my colleagues will join me today in jumping at this chance to make things better. Thank you.