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Monday, 4 July 2011
Page: 7271

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (10:51): Every day in Australia, firefighters—including those who are here with us in the gallery today—put their health on the line to serve the community. They put themselves in danger to regularly protect individuals, families, towns and cities from the threat of fire and sometimes pay the ultimate price in doing so. All members of the public have a deep respect for the service that firefighters perform on our behalf, as the immediate risks are very obvious and apparent for all to see. The longer term risks are often not quite so apparent and obvious but they are nonetheless just as dangerous. I hope that this bill will go some small way to remedying those very significant and real risks.

There is no longer any debate about whether firefighting increases the risk of cancer. Numerous studies, predominantly in the US but also in Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, have demonstrated very clear links between cancer and firefighting. The largest of these, the LeMasters study of 2007 in Ohio, was conducted over 15 years and looked at dozens of fire departments and over 110,000 firefighters. Though firefighters are generally recruited from the healthiest and fittest amongst us, studies have shown time and time again that firefighters exposed to many structural fires, rather than just a single fire, have a clear increase in the risk of contracting cancer. For example, firefighters start out being 20 per cent healthier than the average member of the public, but after five years the average firefighter will have twice the risk of contracting leukaemia and, after several years in the job, male firefighters can find themselves up to 10 times more likely to contract testicular cancer. Despite the best protective clothing and advances in technology and protective gear, firefighters in plastics fires will continue to be exposed to high levels of toxic carcinogens absorbed through the skin—and the associated increased risk of contracting cancer will remain the grisly reality.

There are around 70,000 synthetic chemicals in the average home and when they burn they produce a cancer-causing cocktail. No matter how good a firefighter's breathing apparatus is, their uniform must be able to breathe. Many firefighters will tell you of coming back from a fire—sometimes even days after a fire—and finding that the black, thick, cancer-producing smoke has found its way through their gear and into their open pores and into their skin. Other jurisdictions have acknowledged this. The overwhelming majority of states in the United States and Canada have dealt with this issue by introducing legislation to create the same presumption that my bill will create—that the occupation of firefighting is the dominant cause of the contraction of the cancer. In doing so, those states have made it easier for large numbers of firefighters to access workers compensation as a result. The last decade in particular has seen the legislation sweep from state to state in Canada and the experience of firefighters and legislators alike in implementing so-called ‘presumptive legislation’ across the country has been a very positive one.

The bill makes a very simple amendment to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compens¬≠ation Act 1988. It makes a small addition to part I of the act which, if passed by the parliament, will provide that if a firefighter has been employed for a certain period before being diagnosed with one of seven types of cancer the employment will be taken to have been the dominant cause of the contraction of that cancer unless the contrary is established. The cancers are those which have been identified by the relevant studies as being the highest risk to firefighters—these are most often cancers of those areas which are the filters of the body. The bill identifies seven key cancers which have been shown to have these clear links—brain, bladder, kidney, breast and testicular cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and leukaemia—and leaves open the option of the minister adding to the list by regulation, based inevitably on wider scientific justification of course. These provisions will be restricted to those firefighters who have been actively involved in firefighting duties proper and require firefighters to have served for a minimum number of years before being diagnosed with the relevant primary site cancer. The qualifying periods are different for each cancer and are justified, again, by the best studies available.

I do have another five minutes but I would like, with your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, and with the leave of the House, to now hand over to two other members from different political parties. I think it is a tribute to the lobbying work which has been done by the firefighters, many of whom are here today, that this is being approached in a non-partisan way. It is my hope that this bill proceeds through this place and ultimately through the Senate, with the support of all political parties.