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Former firefighter denied comp presumption for prostate cancer

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A firefighter can’t receive workers compensation benefits for prostate cancer because he failed to show that his cancer was work-related, despite a Pennsylvania cancer presumption for firefighters, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled.

Peter Demchenko began working for the City of Philadelphia as a firefighter in 1974, according to court records. He simultaneously worked as a paramedic and began working as a paramedic exclusively in 1980.

Mr. Demchenko retired in May 2006 and was diagnosed with prostate cancer one month later. Court filings show that he was successfully treated with surgery. 

In 2012, Mr. Demchenko filed a workers comp claim stating that his cancer stemmed from carcinogens he was exposed to while working as a firefighter. He sought disability compensation for the period from November 2006 to January 2007, as well as payment for medical bills.

He said he was exposed to carcinogens such as diesel fumes from fire trucks, secondhand tobacco smoke from his coworkers and smoke from burning debris he encountered while fighting fires. He also acknowledged that he smoked an average of a half-pack of cigarettes daily since 1968.

Mr. Demchenko said he was not regularly exposed to carcinogens while working as a paramedic, and that the last active fire he battled as a firefighter was in 1979 or 1980, court filings show.

Testimony from Dr. Barry L. Singer, who is certified in internal medicine, hematology and medical oncology, was submitted in support of Mr. Demchenko's claim, records show. The doctor testified that Mr. Demchenko would have been exposed to multiple carcinogens during his time as a firefighter, including arsenic, asbestos, formaldehyde and soot.

However, a doctor hired by the City of Philadelphia contradicted Dr. Singer's testimony, saying in court records that Dr. Singer was "not familiar with mainstream epidemiology methodology." The city's medical expert also testified that prostate cancer is typically more of “a disease of aging than it is of external influences.”

Mr. Demchenko’s claim was denied by a Pennsylvania workers comp judge, which found that Dr. Singer failed to use accepted standards for showing causation of Mr. Demchenko’s cancer, according to court records. The judge also noted that “any elevated risks for prostate cancer among firefighters might also be explained by other factors, such as detection bias, ethnicity and geography.”

Mr. Demchenko appealed to the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Board, which upheld the judge’s ruling. He then appealed to the state commonwealth court.

A three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court unanimously upheld the denial of benefits for Mr. Demchenko on Wednesday. 

Pennsylvania workers comp law establishes a presumption for “cancer suffered by a firefighter which is caused by exposure to a known carcinogen.” But the appellate court noted that the presumption applies only for firefighters “who have served four or more years in continuous firefighting duties, who can establish direct exposure to” carcinogens related to firefighting.

Mr. Demchenko and his medical expert failed to prove that his cancer was an occupational disease because he failed to establish a direct connection between cancer and his exposure to carcinogens, the commonwealth court ruled.