Researchers find firefighters face up to triple risk of cancer
Photo: (Above) Three New York City firefighters in front of a burning building following the September 11th terrorist attack. Photo by: Wikipedia
The risk of firefighters developing cancer may much be higher than previously thought, according to new British research, suggesting the risk may be up to triple for firefighters compared to the general population.
It is the toxic buildup of chemicals embedded in the clothing, along with inhaled gases seeping through the breathing apparatuses and other respiratory protection, that researchers now fear is becoming an epidemic among firefighters.
The rate of deaths from cancer in firefighters who are younger than 75 years old is “up to three times higher than the general population”, according to Anna Stec, professor of fire toxicity at the University of Central Lancashire in England.
In the general population, who are not firefighters, 25 to 30 per cent of people develop cancer before this age, with half dying within 10 years.
Skin cancer is one of the highest risks, linked to toxins that contaminate the turnout gear. Mouth and throat cancers from breathing in those chemicals are also common, Professor Stec said.
Such chemicals, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), penetrate cells, can cause deadly mutations in DNA.
“Cancer incidence is far higher among firefighters than the general population,” Professor Stec said. “Firefighters are exposed to toxins both in the fire and afterwards because soot left on their clothing is absorbed via the skin or inhaled.”
Professor Stec pursued two sets of research.
In one study she studied 140 firefighters, and collected 650 samples from the skin, clothing, fire engines and also sampled surfaces from within their offices
Her paper, in Scientific Reports (downloadable as a PDF document at the bottom of this article) said: “In almost all cases, high or very high quantities of carcinogenic PAHs were identified.”
In a second study of British death certificates, preliminary results suggest firefighters suffer high rates of cancer of the skin, mouth, throat, liver and kidneys. This study shows similar results to other studies published in other parts of Europe and in North America.
Traditionally, many firefighters have the attitude that they only need to protect themselves from smoke during the fire, and often take their masks of after the fire is put out.
However, new research show that the soot left over after a fire, especially in a modern building with synthetic building materials, contains thousands of toxic chemicals which can enter the body both through exposed skins, and through the lungs.
At minimum, a filter mask is imperative when entering a building or vehicle that has burnt, even when there is no smoke or off-gassing present.
At the 2017 Greenfell Tower high rise fire in London, experts described their shock at seeing so many firefighters enter the smouldering building, during the aftermath of the fire, without breathing apparatus, which exposed them to toxins.
In an article in the Australian Sunday Times February 25 2018, Sean Starbuck, a former firefighter and currently a national officer with the British Fire Brigades Union, was qouted: “The amount of cancer-causing particulates found on firefighters is shocking.”
Elizabeth Fallon, 49, is one of many to lose a firefighting partner to cancer. Her husband, James, served in Renfrewshire for 30 years before dying of a rare head cancer in 2016.
Ms Fallon, a former fire control operator and now a police officer, said: “The number of firefighters getting cancer is too high to be chance.”
The rules of de-contamination are simple, but nevertheless not always easy to follow in the heat of the moment. However, it is becoming more and more evident it is imperative to do so in order to stay healthy:
- Always use at least a filter mask when entering an area where there has been a fire
- Always use gloves, never leave any skins exposed.
- Get a college to hose you down with water before you take any of your gear off
- Get help taking your gloves off, and put on surgical gloves before handling any of your turnout gear
- Wash all gear after each operation involving fire, or aftermaths of a fire. Put all fabrics in a garbage bag before sending to wash, to avoid spreading contaminants in the fire engine or at the station.
- Clean your mask, tubes and helmet with a brush in soapy water
- Always finish with a shower to wash the skin of any remaining particles. Use cool water initially, so that the pours of your skin remain closed.
Published by Bjorn Ulfsson / CTIF NEWS