9th March 2018

The hidden risk facing our fire-fighting heroes

View all Prevention

How many of us marvelled at the sheer guts of the firefighters when we saw them tackling the horrific blaze that engulfed the Grenfell Tower flats in London last year?

Despite the deadly heat and smoke, these heroes plunged into the inferno again and again, rescuing scores of people from the charred and blistered building.

That’s what these amazingly courageous people do – they save lives.

So it’s shocking to learn that research by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) shows they’re at risk of developing cancer because of “alarmingly high” levels of dangerous chemicals that can cling to their clothing and kit long after they’ve finished fighting a fire.

The research revealed that firefighters were more likely to absorb gases that can cause various forms of cancer – including lung cancer – through their skin rather than inhaling them.

Published in the prestigious Scientific Reports journal, the study states that “dangerously high levels of harmful chemicals remain on protective gear following exposure to smoke”.

It also revealed that the number of deaths from cancer among firefighters (active or retired) aged 75 or under was up to three times higher than in the general population.

As you’d expect, these alarming findings have been widely reported in the media here in the UK.

The UCLan research echoes other studies, including several carried out in the USA and five Nordic nations, which also showed increased rates of cancers among firefighters as compared with the general population.

Anna Stec, professor of fire chemistry and toxicity at UCLan, said: “We have found that contaminated clothing and equipment is causing firefighters to be exposed to alarmingly high amounts of dangerous chemicals, which puts them at a greater risk of cancer.“

The risk of UK firefighters developing cancer as a result of absorbing toxic chemicals through the skin is up to 350 times above the level that would trigger government intervention in the USA, according to the university.

It added that the effects of exposure to toxic gases and the consequences for the long-term health of firefighters are not officially monitored in the UK, even though the number of deaths from cancer among them has been growing steadily since the 1970s.

On the other hand, in both the USA and Canada, certain cancers are recognised as “occupational diseases” among firefighters and the number of fire-related toxins they’re exposed to is measured.

The UCLan research team also found that the methods used to clean UK firefighters protective gear were not effectively carried out, increasing the length of time the skin was exposed to fire-related toxins.

Professor Stec said: “The UK must do more to tackle the growing issue of cancer in firefighters.”

The Fire Brigades Union described the findings as “shocking” and is urging greater awareness of contaminents and the risk they pose. It’s also calling for tougher measures to ensure that firefighters’ clothing and kit is cleaned properly and regularly.

We might think we know pretty much all these is to know about the dangers associated with of the chemicals contained in smoke – especially smoke from cigarettes and other tobacco products – but this research highlights just how deadly and persistent those toxic substances really are.

As if these brave men and women who put their lives on the line don’t face enough risks in the course of doing their job! Surely we owe it to them to make sure this issue is sorted out immediately?