Firefighter’s widow lobbies to protect first-responders from cancer

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PORTLAND — Firefighters know there’s a chance they might not return from fighting a blaze, but studies show they are also at risk from a silent danger – toxic chemicals that can be released by the flames.

In Maine, the Environmental Health Strategy Center has spent months lobbying the Legislature to pass a first-in-the-nation bill that would phase out the use of toxic flame retardants in household furniture.

That advocacy worked as lawmakers overrode a veto by Gov. Paul LePage during a special vote held Aug. 2. The bill means that as of Jan. 1, 2019, furniture can no longer be sold in Maine if it contains flame retardant chemicals.

“We are thankful to the members of the Maine House and Senate who overwhelmingly showed their support to lessen the risks of cancer for Maine firefighters . . .” John Martell, president of the Professional Firefighters of Maine, said in a press release following the vote.

When flame retardants burn, they “expose firefighters to carcinogenic furans and dioxins through breathing and skin absorption. Firefighters can also be exposed from toxic soot, covering the gear they wear,” said Nika Beauchamp, the digital communications manager for the health strategy center.

To help convince state leaders of the importance of the bill, the center leaned heavily on Therese Flaherty of Yarmouth, whose husband, Tim, was a Portland firefighter for 33 years.

Tim Flaherty died of cancer six years ago and his widow has been a powerful spokeswoman for L.D. 182.

“If I can help just one firefighter live longer, have more birthdays and spend more time with his family, I will do it,” Flaherty said in an interview.

It was only after her husband’s cancer diagnosis that she learned the disease is the No. 1 cause of line-of-duty deaths for firefighters across the country.

According to the health strategy center, professional firefighters suffer high rates of more than 10 types of cancer and the use of “toxic flame-retardant chemicals (increases their) health risks.”

Flaherty was not the only one pushing the Legislature to pass the bill with a powerful story of love and loss.

State Rep. Jeff Pierce, R-Dresden, spoke about his father, a firefighter who died of esophageal cancer.

Pierce believes chemical exposure was responsible.

“So many firefighters, first responders and their family members are exposed to these toxic chemicals for no good reason,” he said. “We can’t afford to wait any longer. Let’s make sure politics don’t get in the way of a good bipartisan bill.”

Ronnie Green, a representative from the Professional Firefighters of Maine, said, “Our members continue to die of cancer at alarmingly high rates. This (bill) is our chance to finally get these unnecessary carcinogens out of furniture once and for all.”

Flaherty said her advocacy is about protecting firefighters now and in the future. “For what they do for us, they deserve” those protections, she said.

Beauchamp said L.D. 182 is particularly important because it applies to all flame retardant chemicals used in Maine.

Along with posing a danger to firefighters, flame retardants are also harmful to children, according to the health strategy center, and can increase the risk of birth defects and learning disabilities.

Beauchamp said some products had already been banned because of links to cancer and other health problems, but then newer versions of flame retardants were allowed to be marketed.

“Safety experts say flame retardants are not needed to slow fires,” she said. “They say it’s smoke detectors, sprinklers and strong safety codes that save lives.”

This story has been updated to reflect the actions of the Maine Legislature to override a veto by the governor.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

A family photo of Therese and Tim Flaherty of Yarmouth. Tim was a Portland firefighter for 33 years before cancer took his life.