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Bill Seeks To Protect Firefighters From Chemicals Linked To Cancer

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A bill to better protect Minnesota's firefighters from an invisible danger has been introduced at the state Capitol. The proposal would ban cancer-causing chemicals from furniture and children's products.

Studies show more than half of all line-of-duty deaths in firefighting are now caused by cancer.

Steve Shapira spent 17 years fighting fires in St. Paul before his cancer diagnosis. He's spent the last year on leave going through chemo.

"[The doctor] looked over at me and changed my life with three words: 'You have lymphoma,'"he said.

Rep. Jeff Howe is backing the bill to better protect firefighters. The Republican representing District 13A is a retired firefighter himself.

"I actually took out cancer insurance when I was 35 years old, because I was that worried about it," Howe said. "It's usually not the flame that kills you, it's the smoke."

That smoke carries with it chemicals from flame retardants. For decades, they've been in everything from couches to carpets, meant to delay the start of a fire but recent studies have linked those chemicals to cancer.

"Lo and behold we're now finding out the very thing we fought to get in now is now not only killing us, it's killing children," Howe said. "It's time to realize our mistakes and correct them."

WCCO-TV was in Rochester last year when Dr. Susan Shaw presented her findings to firefighters from across the state. She's the first researcher to measure what flame retardants do to firefighters.

Shaw found for every five degrees a firefighter's skin temperature increases, their skin absorption rate rises 400 times.

"These are supposed to be helpful chemicals right? Well, we've shown they're not," she said back then.

Her research also found chemicals in flame retardants that already pose health problems were 20 times more toxic to them.

More research found furniture treated with flame retardants gave three extra seconds of escape time in a fire. But the flames also produced twice the amount of smoke and 40 times the amount of soot compared to non-treated furniture set on fire.

Minnesota's bill would ban 10 flame retardants common in children's products and upholstered furniture.

But a law, if passed, will come too late for Shapira.

"My life and the life of everyone around me have changed forever," he said.

Still, he's fighting for those left in the career that cancer forced him to leave.

"I don't think this is questionable. I think we should move this thing through," Howe, the lawmaker, said.

The North American Flame Retardant Alliance said it takes firefighters' concerns seriously but it wants more research.

If the bill passes, Minnesota would become the fourth state in the country to ban these flame retardants.

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