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Is the government doing enough to protect firefighters from cancer risks?

PUBLISHED: 18:30 03 October 2019

Firefighters are at an increased risk of dying from cancer

Firefighters are at an increased risk of dying from cancer

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As new research shows that firefighters are twice as likely to die from cancer than the general population, does more need to be done to protect these brave workers?

Everybody knows that firefighting is a dangerous job.

Whether they are responding to fires, road traffic accidents, chemical spills or flooding, firefighters carry out their vital work in often stressful and hazardous conditions, with every shift presenting its own challenges.

There's the immediate danger that fighting a fire entails, as smoke inhalation, potential burns and injury from collapsing buildings all pose a very real threat to those working in the field.

But beyond these on-the-spot hazards, firefighters also face a number of more insidious, long-term threats to their health and wellbeing.

According to a report carried out by the BBC's Inside Out programme, firefighters are twice as likely to die from cancer as the general population, as they are often exposed to dangerous, carcinogen-containing toxins in their clothes and equipment.

All firefighters are required to wear protective gear when fighting fires, but research shows that this equipment is often contaminated with dangerously high levels of harmful chemicals following exposure to smoke.

Helmets and gloves have been found to contain high concentrations of carcinogens, meaning that firefighters' health is being put at risk by the same equipment that is designed to protect them.

Research carried out by the University of Central Lancashire shows that firefighters' main exposure to carcinogens comes not through smoke inhalation,
but through absorption via the skin.

Hot environments such as proximity to fire also increases this contact absorption, as sweating and dehydration turns firefighters' bodies into "a sponge for all the fire toxins."

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"There is a direct link between firefighters' occupation and cancer," professor Anna Stec told the BBC.

"Firefighters are twice as likely to die compared to the general population - and they're dying from not one type of cancer, but they've got multiple types."

While firefighters are responsible for cleaning their kit and equipment after attending a fire, there is currently no national standard to which kit must be cleaned.

According to researchers, the methods used to clean protective gear have thus far been inefficiently implemented, resulting in harmful chemicals remaining on the clothing and equipment even after cleaning.

In response to the findings,
the Fire Brigades Union has called on the government to do more to protect firefighters' health.

Union spokesman Chris Moore has appealed to the government to "give us better protective equipment. More of it, so when it gets dirty we put it away and we can put a clean, fresh set on.

"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."

The National Fire Chief's Council has also responded to the report, saying that the safety and wellbeing of all firefighters is its number one priority.

"Firefighter Personal
Protective Equipment (PPE) today is better than it has ever been, and this is in part due to our work with firefighters, unions, partners and the industry," said a statement from Chris Davies, chair of NFCC's Health and Safety Group.

"We continue to investigate PPE through our Personal Protective Equipment Contamination (PPEC) Working Group and will continue to ensure PPE provides the relevant level of protection to every firefighter."

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