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Fire contaminants linked to “significant” health issues for UK firefighters

16 January 2023

NEW RESEARCH has found that toxic contaminants in fires are directly linked to increased rates of cancer and mental health issues among UK firefighters. The findings support last year’s ruling from the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The latter suggested that exposure through working as a firefighter is carcinogenic. It also goes one step further by highlighting the mental toll that firefighting can take.

Commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and independently conducted by the University of Central Lancashire, the research findings are based on a survey of over 10,000 serving and retired firefighters across the UK. The cohort of interviewees, in fact, represents almost a quarter (ie 24%) of the UK’s total firefighting workforce.

The findings highlight that 4.1% of surveyed firefighters were found to have a cancer diagnosis. In what is a shocking result, instances of cancer among firefighters aged between 35 and 39 is up to 323% higher than in the general population in the same age category.

UK firefighters who have served at least 15 years in the role are found to be 1.7 times as likely to develop cancer than those who have served less time. Skin cancer is by far the most prevalent form of cancer reported. 36% of those firefighters with a cancer diagnosis have been diagnosed with skin cancer.

Further, firefighters are at least twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer if they notice soot in their nose/throat or have remained in their personal protective equipment (PPE), which is often contaminated, for more than four hours after attending a fire.

Mental health link

Led by Professor Anna Stec, who specialises in the subjects of fire chemistry and toxicity, the University of Central Lancashire also explores the link between firefighters’ exposure to fire effluents and mental health. 20% of respondents have reported having a mental health condition. The rate of anxiety among surveyed firefighters was twice that of the general population, while the rate of depression was nearly three times that of the general population.

In addition, firefighters who noticed soot in their nose or throat for a day or more after attending incidents and firefighters who remained in their (often contaminated) PPE for over four hours after incidents were also twice as likely to report mental health disorders.

Firefighters were also significantly more likely to report any mental health condition if they identified noticing the smell of fire smoke on the body even after washing (1.3 times more likely) or eating with sooty hands (1.3 times).

Firefighters working in stations with no designated clean and dirty areas were more likely to report any mental health condition (1.2 times more likely), as were firefighters working in stations which smell of fire (1.2 times).

Cementing the belief

FBU national officer Riccardo la Torre commented: “We already knew that fire contaminants were very likely causing cancer and other diseases in firefighters. Now, we have evidence that cements this belief and also shows that contaminants can impact their mental health.”

He continued: “No firefighter should suffer unnecessarily. There is much more that Fire and Rescue Services can be doing to reduce exposure to fire contaminants. We demand to see more action on prevention, health monitoring and facilities and contracts for proper PPE and workwear cleaning. Ministers and fire bosses can no longer bury their heads in the sand on what is literally a matter of life and death. It’s of absolute urgency that they act now.”

Further, la Torre added: “These are independent, statistically significant, peer-reviewed findings specific to the UK. I’m proud that the FBU commissioned this project to properly address such an important issue. The evidence is now undeniable. We must act now to make firefighting a safer profession.”

Professor Anna Stec observed: “The findings of the UK Firefighter Contamination Survey not only confirm what we already know – ie that firefighters face a higher risk of cancer than the general population – but also brings to light new challenges firefighters have to face. Previous research on the mental health of firefighters has focused on psychological factors, but we now have evidence to assert that there’s a strong relationship between mental health and exposure to fire effluents.”

Stec concluded: “Everyone deserves to be safe at work. Health monitoring and reducing exposure to contaminants in the workplace will play an important part in protecting firefighters, both mentally and physically.”

Mortality rates

The study also finds that firefighters’ mortality rate from all cancers is 1.6 times higher than for the general population, while firefighters are also dying from heart attacks at five times the rate of the general public.

For the study, mortality records were obtained from the National Records of Scotland. The results are relevant to the UK as a whole due to the same conditions confronted by firefighters in Scotland being faced by those across the rest of the UK, with operational procedures consistent across the board.

The research also shows the mortality rates for certain types of cancer are significantly higher in firefighters, including for prostate cancer (3.8 times higher), leukaemia (3.17 times higher) and oesophageal cancer (2.42 times higher). In those instances where cancer with an unknown origin has spread, the rate was 6.37 times higher among firefighters than it is for the general population.

The excess cancer mortality observed in Scottish firefighters for several types of cancer are likely linked to different kinds of exposures and/or fire toxins. For example, 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’ve eaten food with contaminated hands. Meanwhile, mortality rates from leukaemia cancer are linked to exposure to other chemicals such as benzene that can occur due to contact with the skin or inhalation.

The study concludes that health monitoring for firefighters, reducing their exposures from contaminants at their workplace and financial and medical support for those already affected are urgently needed.

Scottish Parliament

The issue has been raised in the Scottish Parliament, with Maggie Chapman MSP bringing a motion to Parliament and both Chapman and Pauline McNeill MSP raising the issue at First Minister’s Questions.

The study in question is entitled ‘Scottish Firefighters Occupational Cancer and Disease Mortality Rates: 2000-2020’, with the results having been published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine.

The study is also published alongside a series of four papers focused on instances of cancer among firefighters. They are as follows:

*Contamination of UK Firefighters’ PPE and Workplaces

*Culture and Awareness of Occupational Health Risks Among UK Firefighters

*Cancer Incidence Among UK Firefighters

*Mental Health of UK Firefighters