Firefighters are more than three times as likely to die from certain cancers than the general population, probably due to exposure to toxic chemicals while battling blazes, a study has found.
Rates of prostate cancer, leukemia and oesophagal cancer appear to be 3.8, 3.2 and 2.4 times higher than the norm and overall firefighters have faced cancer death rates 1.6 times higher than the general population, according to the study published this week in the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational Medicine.
The Fire Brigades Union, which represents 33,500 firefighters and control room staff across the UK, said the findings “should horrify fire services and the government” and called for better monitoring and compensation.
The study, carried out by Dr Anna Stec, professor in fire chemistry and toxicity at the University of Central Lancashire, on behalf of the FBU, used more than 600 mortality records from male firefighters available from the National Records of Scotland. The cocktail of carcinogens such as benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and toluene, which are released in almost all fires, are likely to blame.
The research comes after the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer last year re-classified occupational exposure as a firefighter as “carcinogenic to humans”.
“This is about firefighters dying who did not need to,” said Riccardo la Torre, Fire Brigades Union national officer. “We know that there are clear ways we can make things better for firefighters. We need health surveillance. We need monitoring of exposures. We need legislation that will ensure that affected firefighters are given the compensation they deserve.”
Stec said the results were likely to be reflected nationwide because fire brigade working practices are harmonised across the UK. The study also reported higher levels of heart disease and lung diseases such as asbestosis, pulmonary fibrosis and sarcoidosis.
It found “cancers of the oesophagus and digestive organs point to a potentially significant contribution from ingestion, which may occur when firefighters swallow mucus in which fire effluent has become trapped, or if they have eaten food with contaminated hands”.
It said mortality rates from leukaemia are linked to exposure via skin or inhalation to chemicals such as benzene.
The study reported that more than 85% of recently surveyed UK firefighters reported noticing soot in their nose and throat after attending a fire, with those noticing soot in the nose/throat for more than a day being twice as likely to report a cancer diagnosis than those who did not notice soot in their nose/throat after incidents. Those eating while wearing personal protective equipment were 1.8 times more likely to report a cancer diagnosis than those who do not.
A spokesperson for the Scottish government said: “The findings will help inform further enhancements to staff safety,” and said “the safety and wellbeing of firefighters is a strategic priority for the chief fire officer”.
A spokesperson for the National Fire Chiefs Council said: “It is acknowledged that incidences of some cancers in firefighters are higher than the average; NFCC welcomes this further research… as it will help to inform the on-going introduction of additional protection to make the workplace safer and further reduce the impact of contaminants.
“The NFCC is committed to ensuring the ongoing, improved safety of all firefighters, making full use of the evidence and knowledge available. Personal Protective Equipment and safety procedures are better today than they have ever been, and studies such as these are vital as we strive to make more improvements across the entire fire service sector.”
The Home Office, which is also responsible for fire policy in England and Wales, has been contacted for comment.