Navigation

News and events

Exploring solutions to extinguish occupational cancer in firefighters

Exploring solutions to extinguish occupational cancer in firefighters Banner Image

World-leading fire toxicity academic from UCLan presents new research evidence to the European Parliament

At a staggering 60 percent, cancer is the leading cause of death amongst line-of-duty firefighters. Now, an academic from the University of Central Lancashire’s world-leading fire toxicity research group has unveiled new findings to the European Parliament which could lead to the recognition of cancer as an occupational health issue for firefighters.

UCLan’s Dr Anna Stec, Associate Professor of Fire Toxicity, joined with MEP Pavel Poc who has been leading the call for legislative change in this area, for a roundtable discussion to debate all the issues and explore solutions.

Anna was accompanied by Professor Eero Pukkala, Director for Research at the Finnish Cancer Registry, together with Dr Ondřej Májek from the Institute of Health Information and Statistics of the Czech Republic (ÚZIS ČR) who all presented their respective studies on the topic.

The event took place through the European Parliament’s Members Against Cancer (MAC) Group and in association with Fire Safe Europe.

Multiple exposure to different carcinogenic substances and multiple routes of exposure, through inhalation and through skin absorption, are increasing their risk of getting more than one type of cancer.

Anna has recently led a study on firefighters and their work environment in the UK showing dangerous levels of exposure to carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). “Firefighters have one the most hazardous of all jobs,” she explained.

“They are exposed during the fire, after the fire, in both the short and long term. Multiple exposure to different carcinogenic substances and multiple routes of exposure, through inhalation and through skin absorption, are increasing their risk of getting more than one type of cancer.”

Fellow speaker Professor Eero Pukkala led a study on 16,422 Nordic firefighters, and reported 2536 cancers. His findings revealed an increased risk of prostate cancer, skin melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer, multiple myeloma and adenocarcinoma of the lung, as well as mesothelioma.

Tommy Kjaer and Pieter Maes are firefighters who also attended the high profile event.  They said the issue was an everyday reality. Tommy, who is also president of the Danish Firefighters against Cancer Association, added: “I have been working with the issue of cancers in firefighting since 2010 and study after study shows the same thing: firefighters are diagnosed with cancers at a higher rate than the general population.

“I have no doubt that toxic smoke is the biggest long term enemy for a firefighter’s health. It is a silent killer. We need MEPs to help us save lives and to keep us healthy. We need proper, large scale testing of building materials and we need the toxicity of smoke to be tested and labelled.”

Testing and labelling the smoke toxicity of construction products is a first step in having safer, healthier firefighters. The EU needs to admit there is a problem and act to regulate smoke toxicity.

Pieter Maes, a firefighter and emergency medical technician with the Brussels fire department, has been working in the role for 17 years. He is also a fire instructor and as such regularly teaches during live fire training exercises for the Compartment Fire Behavior Training program (CFBT). "There is a gap between the public perception of what a firefighter’s job is and the reality,” he said.  “Being a firefighter is never running through fire: it is it crawling through thick smoke. The smoke is hot, it is flammable, it is blinding. It is also increasingly toxic, and only a small amount of material can create a huge amount of smoke. Our challenge is to perform and stay healthy in these smoke-filled conditions."

Dr Ondřej Májek of the Institute of Health Information and Statistics of the Czech Republic believes that using the Czech National Healthcare Information System to conduct a study would help them to better understand the firefighter's cancer problem and find solutions.

He has been faced with strong obstacles, but hopes the EU will hear his call to use the data from health information systems across Member States to help people.

The proportion of cancer deaths in firefighters has been growing steadily from the 1970s to the present day; a rise which has coincided with an increase in synthetics and plastics used in homes and buildings.

Anna concluded: “Testing and labelling the smoke toxicity of construction products is a first step in having safer, healthier firefighters. The EU needs to admit there is a problem and act to regulate smoke toxicity. I am hopeful that my research, and the research of those feeding into the European Parliament’s round table discussions, will be influential in that outcome."

A summary of the debate can be viewed here and you can see photos on the UCLan Flickr gallery.

Pictures and video reproduced with thanks to the Fire Safe Europe.

Chris Theobald | 12 October 2017