Firefighters three times more likely to die from certain types of cancer – study

Cancer death rates are 1.6 times higher than general population probably due to toxic chemicals

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.

Contributor

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Revealed: ‘disturbing’ race divide on cancer patients’ wait times in England
Exclusive: Analysis of 126,000 cases over a decade shows black and Asian people wait longer for diagnosis than white people

Andrew Gregory Health editor

28, Aug, 2022 @4:00 PM

Article image
Advising older patients against breast cancer surgery is ‘age bias’, UK study finds
Exclusive: Brighton and Sussex medical school found ‘misplaced beliefs’ led to lower surgery rates

Linda Geddes Science correspondent

11, Nov, 2022 @2:53 PM

Article image
Plant-based diet can cut bowel cancer risk in men by 22%, says study
Researchers find no such link for women, suggesting connection between diet and bowel cancer is clearer for men

Andrew Gregory Health editor

29, Nov, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Record number of cancer patients in England waiting over three months for treatment
Long waiting lists putting urgent patients at risk as target to reduce backlog to pre-pandemic levels missed

Rachel Hall

10, Jan, 2023 @6:16 PM

Article image
Risk factors such as smoking behind almost half of cancer deaths, finds study
Largest research project of its kind also points to alcohol and being overweight as major contributors

Andrew Gregory Health editor

18, Aug, 2022 @10:30 PM

Article image
More than 500,000 people in UK ‘will be diagnosed with cancer each year by 2040’
Cancer Research UK report says NHS risks being overwhelmed by cancer diagnoses

Anna Bawden

03, Feb, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Scientists develop more accurate predictive test for cervical cancer
Test created by UCL and Innsbruck University also detects DNA markers for breast, womb and ovarian cancer

Andrew Gregory Health editor

19, Oct, 2022 @5:01 AM

Article image
Prostate cancer detection variations show ‘postcode lottery’ - charity
Data shows men in Scotland almost three times more likely to be diagnosed at a late stage

Andrew Gregory Health editor

12, Jan, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Blood test spots multiple cancers without clear symptoms, study finds
Doctors hail new era for cancer screening as major research shows effectiveness of Galleri test

Ian Sample Science editor

11, Sep, 2022 @2:30 PM

Article image
Cancer vaccine trials could start in England by autumn
Government deal with BioNTech paves way for early access to trials of personalised mRNA therapies

Jamie Grierson

06, Jan, 2023 @9:09 AM