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World Health Organisation body declares firefighting “carcinogenic”

19 July 2022

THE INTERNATIONAL Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), itself a World Health Organisation body, has declared that an individual’s occupational exposure to harmful materials/substances as a result of serving as a practising firefighter is classified as “carcinogenic” (ie a potential cause of cancer).

The decision comes against a background of research conducted around the world proving that there are links between firefighting and cancer, including here in the UK where initial University of Central Lancashire research has discovered that surveyed firefighters are four times more likely to have been diagnosed with cancer than other members of the general population. Links arise from issues including toxic fire contaminants.

The news emerges in the wake of a week’s worth of discussions involving 25 leading scientists from eight countries that took place in Lyon.

In the UK, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has led on research into the links between cancer and firefighting as well as Best Practice that can help mitigate the potential risks posed by fire contaminants. This has included commissioning and working with University of Central Lancashire on the latter’s independent research, which includes a Firefighters Cancer and Disease Registry, and using that research to realise and underpin Best Practice training for firefighters.

Occupational exposure

Riccardo la Torre, national officer at the FBU, explained: “Firefighters have known for some time now that their occupational exposure to toxic contaminants has links to cancer. This latest development is a hugely significant and vital step forward when it comes to securing firefighters the recognition and protection that they need to do their jobs safely. This classification should be a huge wake-up call for both the Government and Fire and Rescue Services.”

He continued: “Government now needs to urgently acknowledge that cancer is an occupational hazard within firefighting. The politicians should be pushing ahead with urgent improvements to protect firefighters from fire contaminants by way of the FBU’s training. We also recognise that this news will be worrying for firefighters and want to reassure all of our members that the Trade Union will fight to protect their safety at work.”

In addition, la Torre stated: “No one should become ill from going to work. Firefighters deserve to go home at the end of their shift as safely and healthily as they begun it. The FBU will continue its work in this area to protect firefighters. We have already consistently been warning the National Fire Chiefs Council, Fire and Rescue Service employers and Government ministers of this risk, but so far we’ve seen very little action from most of them. It’s now time for them to sit up, listen, take notice and act to protect firefighters from this life-threatening occupational hazard.”

Focusing on DECON

DECON interim Best Practice report researcher Professor Anna Stec is a member of the IARC Committee. The IARC Monographs, in which the classification takes place, identify environmental factors that are carcinogenic hazards to humans. National health agencies can use this information as scientific support for their actions to prevent exposure to potential carcinogens.

In the IARC Monographs, firefighting had previously (ie in 2007) been held to be “possibly carcinogenic”. It has now been upgraded to “carcinogenic to humans” (ie the highest level of certainty). The cancers identified in relation to this reclassification include mesothelioma and bladder cancer.

The FBU knows of one firefighter, for example, who was diagnosed with bladder cancer around nine years ago, had multiple rounds of chemotherapy and 30 operations and, thankfully, has now been given the all-clear. That individual has confirmed that more of his colleagues have died from cancer than anything else during his time in the Fire and Rescue Service.

Another firefighter who blames firefighting for him being diagnosed with cancer is convinced that insufficient protective gear at the start of his career brought on the disease, with the same cancer killing a friend and colleague.

FBU project

The FBU’s own DECON project aims to understand the link between fire contaminants and cancer and protect firefighters and their families from this risk. To date, it has consisted of various elements:

*Ongoing research with the University of Central Lancashire that has resulted in an interim Best Practice report

*Video training for firefighters based on 11 clear principles, with the University of Central Lancashire’s research providing the underlying basis for this training and principles

*International recognition and attention for the project, including at a recent meeting of European firefighter Trade Union representatives where the link between firefighting and cancer was the main focus