Firefighters in the UK are calling on the government for more health protection, after researchers find they are at an increased risk of cancer due to the dangerously high levels of harmful chemicals they are exposed to.
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The findings were explored in the BBC program, Inside Out, which looked at the links researchers have made between working as a firefighter and cancer. Studies have found that firefighters are exposed to dangerously high levels of harmful chemicals due to carcinogens present on the clothes they wear and the equipment they use.
For the first time, the UK’s chief fire officer, Chris Davies, has acknowledged that cancer rates are high among people working in the profession and the Fire Brigades Union is now calling on the government to protect firefighters.
There is a lot of scientific and medical information out there but all of it, that I'm aware of, states that you can't prove or disprove a link to cancer. What I do acknowledge is firefighters are contracting certain types of cancer above the population norm, I accept that and that is a concern.”
“Their job is killing them”
Union spokesman Chris Moore, who himself has an incurable cancer, says: "Up and down the country firefighters are dying of this, due to them saving lives in the line of duty, and their job is killing them.”
He thinks the government needs to “wake up,” work out what is going on and provide firefighters with better protective kit and more of it, so that when it gets dirty, it can be put away and replaced with a fresh set:
At the moment we're having to turn out to fires with kit that's already dirty, because we've got one set in the washing machine and the one we've got is already dirty. We're there to protect the community. We need our employers and the government to protect us."
Chris Moore, Fire Brigades Union
The government has said it is vital that every possible measure is put in place to protect firefighters.
Scientists share the concern
Anna Stec, a Fire Chemistry and Toxicity Expert at the University of Central Lancashire, is investigating the harmful chemicals that firefighters are exposed to.
"In my opinion, there is a direct link between firefighters' occupation and cancer. Firefighters are twice as likely to die when compared to the general population - and they're dying from not one type of cancer, but they've got multiple types… Yet in the UK absolutely nothing is done to address, generally, fire toxicity or firefighters' health."
She has called on the government to protect firefighters by providing them with preventative medical care, education and support, while investing in research and guidance to make sure best practice is followed.
Stec and her team of researchers at the University of Central Lancashire have said that the increased cancer risk is the result of exposure to dangerously high levels of harmful chemicals remaining on protective gear after exposure to smoke.
According to the team, exposure to carcinogens is not by means of inhalation but through absorption via the skin. This absorption is automatically increased in hot environments that cause sweating and dehydration, meaning the firefighters become "a sponge for all the fire toxins."
If you take firefighters in their clothing, in a hot environment, they start sweating, they start dehydrating, body temperature increases, and dermal intake or absorption via the skin is automatically increasing. It’s kind of working like a sponge for all the fire toxins."
The researchers say that firefighting has been unregulated in the UK in terms of long-term health protection and that there is no national directive or standard to inform firefighters about how kit should be cleaned. Rather, it has been left to individual brigades to decide on standard practice.
“Macho culture” once prevailed
Both current and past firefighters have described how "macho culture" once prevailed in the fire brigade.
Having a dirty kit, for example, was seen as a "seal of approval" and a sign of hard work. Breathing apparatus was seen as heavy and awkward to service, so those who wore it were often thought of as "wimps." They therefore often worked without the equipment, which earnt them the nickname "smoke eaters".
What is the plan for firefighters now?
In the United States, Donald Trump has acknowledged the potential link between the firefighting profession and cancer. He has now signed the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, which would enable firefighters who had become sick due to toxin exposure to claim healthcare compensation.
Research into contamination levels has now begun in the UK, with fire brigades having to opt-in if they want their staff to be tested.
Firefighters in a number of counties have provided samples for the research and results are expected by the end of 2020.