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Firefighters’ Trade Union to expand fire contaminants and disease-focused research work

07 June 2022

THE FIRE Brigades Union (FBU) has agreed to expand its research work on the effects of fire contaminants (ie toxic substances produced by fires) on firefighters. In the wake of ongoing studies with the University of Central Lancashire, which the Trade Union commissioned, it’s thought that fire contaminants can cause cancer rates among firefighters to be up to four times higher than for the general population.

As well as commissioning the research* into the links between the occupation of firefighting and cancer and disease, the Trade Union had previously developed some training in this area. The organisation will now fight to see Best Practice on contamination expanded throughout the Fire and Rescue Service, including via national guidance, contaminants monitoring, cancer screening, fire station design principles and more.

The Trade Union has also voted to expand the research to take into account research studies and reports suggesting that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are hazardous to health.

Riccardo la Torre, the FBU’s national officer, said: “It’s overwhelming to see how much our members, our Health and Safety reps and our reps in branches have taken this campaign on board. I watched a friend and a brother die from this disease. It took Steve’s tongue before it took his life. Another very good friend of mine contracted the exact same cancer: face, tongue and throat. He had never smoked in his life. We can be the DECON generation.”

Several firefighters have shared emotional testimony of how cancer has affected them and their fellow firefighters. Steve Burns, from Hampshire, has recounted how the past decade has been “tough” due to 19 rounds of chemotherapy. “We in the UK are well behind [with research] and need to catch up.”

Another firefighter has told of how his own father died from cancer nine days before his retirement: “The consultant oncologist said that his work as an operational firefighter was a highly likely contributing factor to my father’s illness and his subsequent death. The pain and heartbreak felt by his colleagues, family and friends was at times unbearable.”

New policy

La Torre stated: “The Trade Union’s work so far has raised awareness of the risks of fire contaminants and taken steps to prevent those risks. Now, we want to take the next step and make sure that decontamination is really embedded across the Fire and Rescue Service at all levels. With new policy on national guidance, monitoring, screening and much more, we’re confident we are taking significant steps here that will help to create healthier firefighters in the future.”

The FBU’s National Conference motion on guidance noted the absence of decontamination within the Fire and Rescue Service’s National Operational Guidance and has committed the Trade Union to fighting to change this situation. The motion on station design notes that decontamination efforts “can be undermined by outdated fire station building designs” and, similarly, commits the Trade Union to make efforts to ensure that decontamination principles are embedded in all future fire station designs.

Another motion at last month’s National Conference has committed the Trade Union to working towards enhanced cancer screening, with all Fire and Rescue Services monitoring fire contaminant exposure levels.

PFAS are highly persistent chemicals thought to have a wide range of possible health effects. They’ve been the subject of attention including the 2019 Mark Ruffalo film Dark Waters. These compounds are thought to be present in some firefighting foams and uniforms.

*The research centred on a survey of 11,000 firefighters