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Revealed: The Epidemic ‘Killing’ a Growing Number of Firefighters

The Government has yet to take any action to address evidence that firefighters are more likely to die of cancer than the general population, Andrew Kersley reports

Firefighters attend a fire in block of flats in Holloway, north London. Photo: Jeffrey Blackler/Alamy

Revealed:The Epidemic ‘Killing’ a Growing Number of Firefighters

The Government has yet to take any action to address evidence that firefighters are more likely to die of cancer than the general population, Andrew Kersley reports

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Unions and academics have warned that delays in getting to grips with an epidemic of work-related cancers is “killing” a growing number of firefighters, Byline Times can reveal.

A study earlier this year by the University of Central Lancashire found that firefighters were 1.6 times more likely to die from cancer than the general population. 

For certain cancers – including prostate, leukaemia and the oesophageal cancer – the mortality rate is between 2.4 and 3.8 times higher than the general population.

But, despite that and a slew of previous evidence, as well as the fact that a growing number of countries and even the World Health Organisation acknowledging that firefighting is a carcinogenic profession, the UK Government has yet to take any specific actions to address the issue. 

And now firefighters unions, victims and academics have told this newspaper that there is a dire cost for that inaction.

Fires often produce a toxic mixture of carcinogens, including benzene and toluene, which are behind the epidemic of cancers. Firefighters’ personal protective equipment and foam also contain the dangerous ‘forever chemical’ PFAS.

That issue has been acknowledged across the globe for many years, with countries such as Canada, Australia, Sweden, New Zealand and America passing laws to offer firefighters everything from additional health monitoring of firefighters and better equipment.

The problem is so severe that the World Health Organisation recently deemed firefighting as a profession as carcinogenic to humans and as a group 1 occupational hazard, the most serious classification, because of the high levels of carcinogens firefighters encounter on the job. 

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“The UK is decades behind other countries when it comes to protecting firefighters from cancer,” FBU national officer Riccardo La Torre told Byline Times. “The evidence is there – and while the UK Government and fire service employers fail to act, firefighters are dying. Exposure to fire contaminants at work is killing us…

“It’s a national disgrace that firefighters are left to fend for themselves against deadly diseases at work. We need standardised prevention measures rolled-out across the UK, regular health monitoring available to every single firefighter, and compensation for those who fall ill. A firefighter’s life isn’t worth less here than anywhere else, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Government and employers are asleep at the wheel as firefighters are dying.”

The union itself has had to force most of the action on the issue, from commissioning the recent UCLAN study to launching a list of demands to address the issue that include better policies on equipment, washing and decontamination for firefighters, annual health monitoring for firefighters and recording the risk posed by their occupation on the death certificates of firefighters.

“Australia, Canada and the USA already offer regular health monitoring for firefighters to detect cancers early,” Anna Stec, Professor in Fire Toxicity at the University of Central Lancashire and the author of the recent research into the issue, told Byline Times. “Indeed, the first firefighters’ presumptive illness law was passed in California more than 40 years ago in 1982.”

Iain Barbour’s doctors never suspected cancer when he visited them in the summer of 2020 after he had problems swallowing. It took weeks of delays and false diagnoses and struggling to eat solid foods before he was told that he had a cancerous tumour that had blocked 75% of his oesophagus. 

While he is now in remission and joining the Scottish Fire Service, he says he felt the reason his diagnosis was so late and he had to endure so many rounds of chemotherapy was because his doctors hadn’t been made aware of the risk of developing cancer firefighters had.

However, when Julian Jenkins started having problems with his throat, one of his first thoughts was that it could be cancer. As a former FBU rep and watch commander who had retired in 2016, he knew of the growing number of cases of cancer among even young colleagues, discussed by fellow firefighters in his region.   

He was eventually diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2019. He went into remission but was stuck in hospital and still severely immunocompromised when the Coronavirus pandemic hit. He caught the virus and died in August 2021. 

“I know other members of Julian’s watch who have got cancer since retiring,” Helen Russell, Julian’s partner, said. “The first thing that needs doing is just recognising the evidence of the link between firefighting and cancer. It’s really quite insulting that they are not willing to engage on this.

“Surely the Government have a duty of care not just to retired and serving firefighters, but future firefighters too. It makes me angry to see the inaction on this. Firefighters like Julian work their entire life keeping people safe but there’s no willingness from the Government to keep them safe.

“I wanted to continue Julian’s legacy. His work was all about making people’s lives better. Making people aware of this issue, it keeps his work going a little bit.”

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A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times that the health and safety of firefighters is “of paramount importance and emerging research indicating that they are being exposed to an increased risk of cancer is concerning”. 

“With other partners, we are now considering recently published studies to understand their conclusions and our next steps,” they said. “It is the responsibility of fire and rescue authorities to ensure that firefighters receive the appropriate equipment and training they need to safely respond to the wide range of incidents which they attend.”

A spokesperson for the National Fire Chiefs Council said it “acknowledged that incidences of some cancers in firefighters are higher than the average”. 

“NFCC is committed to ensuring the ongoing, improved safety of all firefighters, making full use of the evidence and knowledge available,” they added. “NFCC, in collaboration with the Fire Brigades Union, has issued advice to firefighters across the UK, emphasising the importance of hydration, heat management, cleanliness and safe systems of work, based on industry recognised knowledge and standards. 

“This is also supported by the work currently being undertaken within NFCC’s health and safety committee, which has seen several services agree to staff participating in a confidential health survey and screening process to identify any links between fire effluents and different types of diseases and cancers.”

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