Firefighters’ union to expand fire contaminants and disease work

The Fire Brigades Union has agreed at its annual conference to expand its work on the effects of fire contaminants – toxic substances produced by fires – on firefighters. In ongoing research with the University of Central Lancashire, which the union commissioned, it is thought that fire contaminants can cause cancer rates amongst firefighters to be up to four times higher than the general population.

As well as commissioning the research, into the links between the occupation of firefighting and cancer and disease, the union had previously produced training in this area. The new developments at conference mean it will now fight to see best practice on contamination expanded throughout the fire service, including via national guidance, contaminants monitoring, cancer screening, fire station design principles and more.

The union 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.

Commenting during the debate, Riccardo la Torre, Fire Brigades Union national officer, said [abridged]:

“It’s overwhelming to see how much conference, our members, our health and safety reps and our reps in branches have taken on this campaign. 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 got the exact same cancer, face, tongue and throat – he’d never smoked in his life. Every delegate in this room will have their own story.

“No one was doing [this work] – not the government, not the NFCC, not the employers – so, we know what we do best in the FBU. We look after each other. We’re doing it ourselves.

“We can be the DECON generation. Remember the dead, and fight for the leaving – that’s exactly what this fight is.”

Several firefighters shared emotional testimony of how cancer has affected them and fellow firefighters. Steve Burns, from Hampshire, recounted how the past decade has been “tough”, with 19 rounds of chemotherapy, and said “we in the UK are well behind and need to catch up”. Another told of how his own father had died from cancer nine days before his retirement, and added “the consultant oncologist said that his work as an operational firefighter was a highly likely contributing factor to the illness and subsequent death. The pain and heartbreak felt by his colleagues, family and friends was at times unbearable”.

La Torre added in comment:

“The union’s work so far has raised awareness of the risks of fire contaminants, and taken action 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 are confident we are taking significant steps here that will help create healthier firefighters in the future.”

The conference motion on guidance notes the absence of decontamination within the fire and rescue service’s National Operational Guidance and commits the union to fighting to change this. The motion on station design notes that decontamination efforts “can be undermined by outdated fire station building designs” and, similarly, commits the union to making efforts to ensure that decontamination principles are embedded in all future fire station designs.  Another motion committed the union to working towards enhanced cancer screening and all fire and rescue services monitoring fire contaminant exposures.

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

The research which suggests significantly higher cancer rates in firefighters – centred around a survey of 11,000 firefighters which found cancer rates four times as high amongst respondents compared to what would be expected from the general population – was commissioned by the union and produced independently by the University of Central Lancashire.

The conference, taking place from 10-13 May, is the union’s first in-person conference since the beginning of the pandemic.

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