PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Two committees at the State House voted Wednesday to create a conclusive presumption that cancer in both active and retired firefighters in Rhode Island was caused by their work and considered to be “occupational cancer.”

The new presumption would mean a firefighter diagnosed with any type of cancer – whether they’re on active duty, or retired decades ago – would be eligible for a tax-free accidental disability pension.

“If you’re going to expect us to put our lives on the line, then I think either when we get sick we should be taken care of, or when we die from protecting others our family should be taken care of,” said Paul Valletta, a retired Cranston firefighter who works as the lobbyist for the State Association of Firefighters.

The bill, which was passed on Wednesday by both the House and Senate Labor Committees, was introduced in response to a R.I. Supreme Court decision last year that ruled Rhode Island’s current 1986 law regarding occupational cancer in firefighters isn’t an automatic presumption, but instead requires the firefighter to prove a link between their cancer and fighting fires.

Kevin Lang, a Cranston firefighter who developed colon cancer, died in 2017. (Photo provided by Cranston Firefighters Local IAFF 1363)

Kevin Lang, the Cranston firefighter in the underlying case – who died of colon cancer before the ruling came down – had been denied an accidental disability benefit by the state’s retirement board in 2015. His estate continued to fight the case, leading to the high court’s ruling that state law as it stands does not conclusively presume all cancers in firefighters are caused on the job.

The new bill has some exceptions, including for tobacco users or firefighters who have only been on the job for a short time. But those exceptions only apply to future firefighters hired after the bill becomes law, meaning existing firefighters or retirees who have a history of smoking would still receive a presumption that their cancer was caused by fighting fires.

The bill does not exempt any specific types of cancer from the presumption, and does not include an option for a pension board to “rebut” a claim if there is clear evidence the cancer had a different cause.

Valletta pointed to multiple studies that show fighting fires has been tied to many different cancers because of firefighters’ exposure to smoke and other carcinogens and chemicals they inhale or absorb through the skin while inside a burning building.

“You’d think all they get is lung cancer because they breathe that stuff in,” Valletta said. But he said improvements in masks and personal protective equipment for the lungs has helped tamp down on lung cancer, while other cancers such as blood, brain and gastrointestinal cancer increase. “Lung cancer’s been passed by these other cancers now,” he said.

In response to a law passed by Congress, the CDC is currently collecting data to creating a cancer registry for firefighters, but is not expected to publish results for several years.

The Rhode Island legislation could raise costs for cities and towns that pay out pension benefits. An actuarial study on the bill found it would increase the long-term liability for the 28 pension plans in the state-run Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (MERS) by roughly $1 million. The fire departments in that state system would need to contribute about $240,000 more to the pension system in fiscal year 2022, the actuaries found.

“While the impact across the entire MERS Fire population may be relatively small, a provision such as this could have a dramatic impact on a single unit as the impact from one single instance will be greater as the particular impacted unit gets smaller,” the actuaries wrote in the study.

However, the study did not examine the bill’s financial impact on independent municipal pension plans that are outside the state MERS system, including in Providence, Warwick, Pawtucket and East Providence, or old pension plans in cities like Cranston that later joined the state system.

In Providence – which has its own pension plan and is not part of MERS – the bill is not expected to have an impact because the city already has a presumptive cancer ordinance. According to data provided by the city, there have only been two cancer-related disability pension claims for Providence firefighters in the past 10 years. (The names and retirement dates were redacted from the data.)

In the state retirement system, there have been 13 firefighter disability claims for cancer since 2011, according to spokesperson Evan England.

England said of those 13, five accidental disability pensions have been granted. Two have been denied (one of those being Lang), four were canceled (typically because the firefighter dies while the claim is pending) and two claims are currently pending (a firefighter from Smithfield and a retired Central Falls firefighter).

If passed, the new legislation would mean those cases would be approved, and would remove the responsibility of the retirement board to try and determine whether a retiree’s cancer was caused by fighting fires or not.

The R.I. League of Cities and Towns calls the proposed bill “one of the most generous in the nation,” comparing it to other states that have stricter eligibility requirements or a list of eligible cancers.

Brian Daniels, the executive director of the League, wrote in testimony that the organization isn’t opposed to having a cancer presumption — which he said 42 other states have — but that this legislation would mean Rhode Island and Minnesota are the only two states with a cancer presumption that is not rebuttable and does not include a list of cancers.

According to the League’s study, 32 of the states allow the presumption that cancer was caused by the job to be challenged, and five do not. And 23 of the states have a listed of qualifying cancers, while 13 do not, according to Daniels.

Daniels asked lawmakers to create a “state presumption fund” to pay for the cancer claims, in order to avoid creating an unfunded mandate on cities and towns.

Other than the two known pending cases, it’s not clear how many more firefighters who develop cancer might get an accidental disability pension under the bill, which is both retroactive and prospective.

Valletta predicted it would not be many, since the State Association of Firefighters has long considered the 1986 law to be a cancer presumption and always urged firefighters and retirees with cancer to apply for the disability pension, which provides a lifetime benefit of 66.6% of one’s salary tax-free.

And some municipalities such as Cranston, for example, have a cancer presumption baked into their collective bargaining agreements with unions, which would mean this bill has little effect.

“Unfortunately it has been a part of our CBA with IAFF for years from previous administrations so we already have been dealing with the effects of the cancer conclusive presumption,” said Dan Parrillo, a spokesperson for Mayor Allan Fung. “It will no doubt affect the state retirement system and could impact all cities and towns down the road if the actuarial numbers show that our contributions need to increase due to the additional number of accidental disability pensioners, but that is an unknown right now.”

Valletta argued that it’s difficult to truly prove that a firefighter or retiree’s cancer was not caused by the dangerous job, and the risk of granting a pension for cancer that turns out to be caused by something else is one lawmakers should be willing to take.

“If there’s one firefighter out there that gets a disability pension that maybe got it from somewhere else, we’ll never know, and 25 who get a disability pension who’ve been to enough fires where we know they’ve got it from there … I’m willing to take those odds,” Valletta said. “It appreciates what we are willing to do.”

Steph Machado ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.