posures to toxins, an array of other factors may influence whether a particular cancer develops, Daniels said. Those factors include family history and lifestyle habits, such as diet, exercise, smokingand alcohol consumption.
“There is no way to tell if a cancerous tumor is occupationrelated by just looking at the tumor,” Daniels said. “Because of that, there's always an amount of uncertainty, and it can be hard to get at the truth.”
Still, Daniels said: “There is unequivocal evidence that firefighters are exposed to carcinogens, and it's not too far of a stretch to say that with increased exposure comes increased risk.”
But Daniels said the NIOSH study does not yet yield scientific evidence to support the general consensus among firefighters that cancer deaths in their ranks are surging.
“There is absolutely more awareness of firefighter cancer deaths than in the past, and more attention is given to prevention, but I can't say if there are more or less cases,” he said.
As researchers likeDaniels continue to study whether firefighters have a higher risk of cancer due to exposure to toxins while on the job, officials at departments across the Chicago suburbs arebecoming increasingly vigilant about combating what many describe as the most daunting challenge now facing firefighters.
The death of Waukegan firefighter Kevin Oldham, 33, from pancreatic cancer in 2011, fol- lowed by the diagnoses of two members of the department who currently are battling cancer, has made preventing cancer a top priority for the department, Waukegan fire Chief George Bridges Jr. said.
“Firefighters these days are not just fighting fires. Theyare dealing with structures that are categorized as (hazardous materials) incidents because of all of the chemical toxins in the buildings,” Bridges said. “As a fire chief, firefighters are my superheroes, and the byproducts of today's fires are their kryptonite.”
He added: “It really touched home after Kevin's death. … He was very young, and had a wife and kids.
“We are a family here, and when someone dies or is ill, and to think there's somethingwe can do to help prevent this, it hurts us evenmore,” Bridges said.
As fire chiefs like Bridges cope with the loss of a firefighter and struggle to findways to help those who are still battling cancer, government officials in the area face formidable challenges posed by cancer cases.
In Buffalo Grove, village officials said the decision to file a lawsuit contesting the firefighter pension board's ruling to grant Kevin Hauber's family a full pensionwasmade aftermuchdeliberation.
Paying the Hauber family the full pension benefit would cost taxpayers an additional $1.7 million over the course of the pension, officials have said.
In addition, officials said the pension board's decision represented a “precedent-setting case,” which, if not challenged, would have a long-term, negative financial effect on municipalities.
“It's very difficult to balance the human interests of Kevin's widow and her children with the financial and fiduciary responsibilities we have to our residents,” Buffalo Grove Village Manager Dane Bragg said. “It is definitely challenging, and we have been sensitive of that from day one. But sometimes, you have to make a decision that is not the most popular position to be in.”
When a municipality designs a pension system, officials should ensure that the contractual agreements in cases of employee disability and death are stated clearly, and they also “need to honor them,” said Jeffrey Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
While fatalities from catastrophic injuries suffered during a service call have none of the ambiguity inherent to cancer deaths, Brown said pension policy contracts should be airtight and eliminate any lingering questions for family members about their benefits.
“I'm sympathetic to these families because public pensions have become a hot-button political and financial issue,” Brownsaid. “But a pension policy should be writ large with apromise that the city is obligated to either pay the pension benefit or not.”
After the cancer death of Lincolnshire-Riverwoods Fire Protection District Lt. James Carney, 43, village officials did not fight the Fire Department pension board's decision to grant his wid- owand their two young children a full pension benefit, said Steve Shetsky, a fellow firefighter and member of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4224.
Carney, who was raised on his family's farm in Wadsworth, was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 after medical examinations determinedthe diseasewas the result of repeated exposure to carcinogens while he was out fighting fires, Shetsky said.
According to court records, Carney, who had sought medical attention after he was having trouble sleeping and was coughing at night, was diagnosed with pericarditis, which is the swelling of the tissue around the heart.
After a surgery was performed, doctors found a tumor between Carney's heart and the membrane enclosing the heart. His firefighting career ended after diagnosis and treatment for pericardial mesothelioma, court records show.
WhileCarneywas granted lineof-duty disability pension benefits and his death was ruled as dutybased, officials denied a request that his family be covered by a health insurance benefitunderthe Public Safety Employee Benefits Act, prompting a February 2016 lawsuit against the fire protection district.
A June decision by the Illinois AppellateCourt upheld a rulingby the Circuit Court of Lake County that the Carney family is indeed entitled to the line-of-duty disability pension benefit.
“Every aspect of this entire process has been extremely difficult for everyone involved,” Shetsky said. “This seems to have become the new norm … municipalities contesting line-of-duty benefits. Theyriskedtheir lives for their communities in the short time they lived, and now, their loved ones face a battle.”