Calls for urgent action to protect firefighters from cancer risks

Firefighters tackling a blaze
Firefighters tackling a blaze Credit: Scott Wilson/PA Wire/PA Images

Scientists from the University of Central Lancashire have revealed "serious health risks" to UK firefighters following exposure to toxic chemicals emitted during a fire.

More than 10,000 serving firefighters were surveyed to better understand UK decontamination practices and the prevalence of illness for the independent report commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union.

The paper revealed 4.1% had already been diagnosed with cancer, compared with less than 1% of the general population.

Half of those who responded thought their fire service does not takes decontamination practices, including cleaning PPE and equipment, seriously.

The FBU says the study, a UK first, is the latest in a growing body of international evidence suggesting an increased risk of firefighters developing cancer and other diseases.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: "Firefighters risk their lives every day to keep their communities safe. But it’s clear that the risk to their health doesn’t stop when the fire has been extinguished.

"Sadly we often see serving and former firefighters suffer from cancer and other illnesses. Every firefighter knows the fear that, someday, they and their family could receive the devastating news – but we’re determined to do all we can to reduce the risk of firefighters developing these terrible diseases as a result of their job.

"There are some hard truths for fire and rescue services in this report – and far more needs to be done to protect firefighters from cancer and other illnesses. And among firefighters, there are still some myths to dispel, which is why regular and up to date training on the risk to their health is so essential.

"This research is a crucial first step to definitively proving the link between firefighting, toxic contaminants, and cancer in the UK. The Health and Safety Executive must urgently implement the recommendations to bring life-saving measures into place as soon as possible."

Fires produce a cocktail of toxic, irritant and carcinogenic chemicals in the form of aerosols, dusts, fibres, smoke and fumes or gases and vapours.

The report includes a summary of the university's testing on-site at 18 fire stations as well as over 10,000 responses to a national firefighter survey run jointly between the FBU and the university.

Indoor air testing at a number of fire stations and training centres highlighted that UK firefighters are still being exposed to the high levels of toxic contaminants during and after a fire, as cancer-causing chemicals remain on PPE clothing, equipment, and elsewhere at the fire ground. Test samples revealed carcinogens inside firefighters’ helmets, on PPE, and even on breathing apparatus mask filters.

Scientists have created a best practice guide for fire and rescue services, putting forward a number of urgent recommendations to minimise firefighters’ exposure to toxic fire effluents.

Anna Stec, Professor in fire chemistry and toxicity at the University of Central Lancashire, said: "These recommendations are vital if we are to improve firefighters’ health and well-being, keep them safe and prevent exposure to toxic chemicals, which can lead to life-changing problems or premature death. They must be implemented swiftly to reduce the health risks firefighters face.

"This report highlights some of the risks and sources of contamination that firefighters are exposed to on a regular basis, and how these can be controlled. We hope that this guidance will be adopted and used by the fire sector across UK and beyond so the overall exposure of firefighters and their families is reduced."

In the UK, it has so far been concluded that there is not considered to be enough evidence to link occupational exposure to carcinogenic fire effluents and the higher risk of cancers.

Ahead of the report’s publication, the Environmental Audit Committee recommended that the Health and Safety Executive implement its report’s recommendations on improving firefighters’ work environments.

In response the government has confirmed that it would instruct HSE to monitor the research and to ensure fire and rescue services identify risks to firefighters.