FIREFIGHTERS FACE GREATER CANCER RISK – because of alarmingly high levels of chemicals carried on clothing

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Firefighter in decontamination suit being hosed down
Firefighter in decontamination suit being hosed down

FIREFIGHTERS face a greater risk of developing cancer because of an ‘alarmingly high’ level of dangerous chemicals carried on their clothing, researchers have found. In the first study of its kind, experts at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) discovered firefighters were more likely to absorb cancerous gases through their skin rather than inhaling them. ‘Dangerously high levels of harmful chemicals’ remain on their protective gear following exposure to smoke, according to the research, published in the Scientific Reports journal.

The government has been urged to take action after it was reported the cancer death rate among firefighters aged 75 or under was up to three times higher than in the general population.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) described the findings as ‘shocking’ and said it believed firefighters’ kits were not being cleaned properly.

Anna Stec, professor of fire chemistry and toxicity at UCLan, said: ‘We have found that contaminated clothing and equipment is causing firefighters to be exposed to alarmingly high amounts of dangerous chemicals, which puts them at a greater risk of cancer. ‘If this level of toxic exposure was found in the US or Canada, the government would immediately put measures in place to monitor the health of firefighters and address this.

‘The UK must do more to tackle the growing issue of cancer in firefighters.’

The risk of developing cancer among UK firefighters because of skin absorption of toxic chemicals is as high as 350 times above the level that would prompt government intervention in the US, according to UCLan.

The university said firefighting remained an ‘unregulated occupation in the UK in terms of long-term health protection’, unlike other jobs such as hairdressing. Exposure to toxic gases and the effect on the long-term health of firefighters are not officially monitored in the UK, despite cancer deaths in firefighters growing steadily since the 1970s, it added.

In contrast, certain cancers are recognised as ‘occupational diseases’ among firefighters in Canada and the US and the number of fire toxins they are exposed to is measured. For the study, researchers collected samples from firefighters’ skin and protective equipment at two UK fire stations and examined them for cancerous gases created during a blaze, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Researchers found that the methods used to clean firefighters’ protective clothing and equipment were not effectively carried out, meaning the length of time that skin was exposed to fire toxins increased.

Former firefighter Sean Starbuck, national officer with the FBU, said: ‘We believe this is happening because firefighters kits aren’t being cleaned properly or regularly enough.

‘There is such a low awareness of what contaminants are and of the dangers they pose to human health.’

Meanwhile, the public is being denied the right to have a say on proposed changes to the Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service that the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) rightly insist are a threat to public safety. Managers at the service have proposed measures that would include a reduction in the number of firefighters who serve in a crew from five to four.

This is a threat to both the public and firefighters as a crew of five is needed in order to follow safe working procedures to tackle blazes and rescue people. It means fire victims will have to wait longer to be rescued. Eight full-time firefighter posts and five retained posts are also under threat that would devastate the small brigade as it constitutes 15% of the entire firefighting workforce.

Fire service staff had been informed that a 12-week public consultation would follow the service review even going as far as hiring personnel from Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service to oversee the process. But now the council has reneged on their promise, likely to avoid public outrage over the cuts, and the decision will now be taken entirely by the council cabinet without any scrutiny from either the public or other councillors.

Spence Cave, brigade secretary of the FBU in the Isle of Wight, said: ‘This is simply local democracy under assault. ‘The council and service managers know they will face a backlash over their plans for a more dangerous service and have decided they have the right to bypass the public altogether.

‘We were told that the review was not about finances and if the Isle of Wight required more crews or finances then they would consider it.

‘However, their preferred option is based purely on budget saving and not on risk, or the safety of the public and firefighters. They are selling a cuts package as an improvement. ‘The risk facing Isle of Wight residents has not been reduced but the service charged with rescuing them will be if these changes are given the go-ahead.

‘The speed and weight of the fire service response is essential in the first stages of a fire or a rescue and is paramount to its success. To cut crews is simply dangerous.’

A decision on the review is expected to be delivered at a meeting of the council cabinet on 8 March.

• Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue’s response times were the longest on record last year and the county council has blamed it on ‘traffic’. The latest figures from the Home Office have revealed that it took the fire service on average nine minutes to respond to a primary fire between April 2016 and March 2017.

‘Primary’ fires are the more serious alerts: fires in cars and buildings that are not derelict, and any fires involving a casualty or rescue. The average response time was up from 8.6 minutes during April 2015 to March 2016 and is the longest since records began in 1994-95. The news comes as fire services up and down the country are dealing with significant cuts to their workforce.

The number of firefighters in the county has been slashed over the past seven years from 813 in 2010 to 671 in 2017 – a reduction of 142. Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said: ‘It is no coincidence that response times to fires have lengthened after the government has spent the last eight years butchering the fire and rescue service with thousands of frontline firefighter posts being cut, dozens of fire engines removed from service and fire stations closed down.

‘The government need to open their eyes to what continued funding cuts to the fire service mean. It means more people dying in fires because crews can no longer respond promptly and in sufficient numbers to tackle fires professionally, quickly and effectively. ‘We need investment into the fire service, not more cuts.’

• People have reacted angrily to news that response times to serious fires in Notts were the slowest on record and they blame savage cuts to the service. Crews in Notts took more than 10 minutes on average to get out to major blazes in 2016/17 and people in Retford say it will get worse once controversial new crewing arrangements, which will see the town’s night shift manned by part-time firefighters, come into force.

New statistics reveal response times to so-called primary fires – defined as harming people or damaging properties – have steadily grown over the past five years, and last year took more than two minutes longer on average than in 2013/14. NFRS took an average of 9.8 minutes to respond to 1,042 serious fires in 2015/16 – and that was up from an average of 9.1 minutes in 2014/15 (964 fires) and 8.5 minutes in 2013/14 (1,037 fires). In 2016/17, the figure stands at 10.5 minutes.