Toxic contaminants in fires can be directly linked to increased rates of cancer and mental health issues among firefighters, research has suggested.
The findings have come as an investigation has also concluded that a higher than usual number of firefighters who attended the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017 have since been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The research, commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and independently carried out by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), is based on a survey of more than 10,000 firefighters across the UK, representing almost a quarter (around 24%) of the UK’s total firefighter workforce.
The findings, published in the Scientific Reports journal, showed that 4.1% of firefighters surveyed were found to have had a cancer diagnosis. Instances of cancer among firefighters aged 35-39 were up to 323% higher than in the general population in the same age category.
UK firefighters who had served at least 15 years are found to be 1.7 times as likely to develop cancer than those who have served less time.
Skin cancer was by far the most prevalent cancer reported, with more than a third (36%) of those firefighters with cancer having been diagnosed with skin cancer.
Furthermore, firefighters were at least twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer if they noticed soot in their nose or throat or remained in their personal protective equipment (PPE) – which often gets contaminated – for more than four hours after attending a fire.
Firefighter health and safety
Last year, a ruling by the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that exposure through working as a firefighter is carcinogenic. However, the latest study, which was led by UCLan’s Professor Anna Stec, a professor in fire chemistry and toxicity, has gone further by also exploring the link between firefighters’ exposure to fire effluents and mental health.
A fifth (20%) of respondents 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.
Moreover, firefighters who worked in stations with no designated clean and dirty areas were more likely to report any mental health condition (1.2x more likely), as were firefighters working in stations which smell of fire (1.2x).
Separately, an investigation by The Mirror newspaper has concluded that a high number of firefighters who attended the Grenfell Tower disaster have since been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The firefighters, some aged only in their 40s, are suffering with rare cancers linked to the high levels of unprecedented exposure to contaminants during the huge rescue effort.
Up to a dozen firefighters are understood to have been diagnosed with cancers but it could end up being more than 20. The majority of which are understood to be digestive cancers and leukaemia, for which there is no cure, the paper reported.
In the June 2017 blaze firefighters ran out of air in the tower and many sat in their contaminated suits for more than 10 hours.
As well as cancers, other illnesses such as kidney failure, heart disease and strokes are understood to have been recorded after the disaster among firefighters, believed to be a result of the extreme physical exertion during the June 2017 tragedy.
For those who ran out of air, they would have swallowed smoke, resulting in kidney and lung disease and digestive system diseases, the newspaper added.
The Mirror also highlighted the role that occupational health professionals are playing in supporting the firefighters. A London Fire Brigade spokesperson told the newspaper: “Our firefighters must be as safe as possible when doing their jobs and we are currently involved in two studies to investigate the possible impact of contaminants on health, including one directly linked to the Grenfell Tower fire.
“All firefighters and officers who attended Grenfell have been invited to take part in the research project, which carefully monitors their health even after they retire or leave the service. Staff also have access to our occupational health service to support them through periods of ill health.”
Measures such as health monitoring and reducing exposure from contaminants at the workplace will play an important part in protecting firefighters, both mentally and physically.” – Professor Anna Stec, UCLan
Commenting on the FBU/UCLan study, Professor Anna Stec said: “The findings of the UK Firefighter Contamination Survey not only confirm what we already know, 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 that there is a strong relationship between mental health and exposure to fire effluents. Everyone deserves to feel safe at work, and these studies show that measures such as health monitoring and reducing exposure from contaminants at the workplace will play an important part in protecting firefighters, both mentally and physically.”
Riccardo la Torre, national official at the FBU, added: “We already knew that fire contaminants were very likely causing cancer and other diseases in firefighters. Now, we have evidence that cements that belief and also shows that contaminants can impact their mental health.
“No firefighter should suffer unnecessarily and there is much more that fire 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,” he said.
Finally, it has emerged that a record number of people in England are waiting longer than ever for cancer treatment, as the total waiting more than three months has surpassed 12,000 for the first time.
More than 4% of the 287,000 people on cancer waiting lists had waited more than 104 days to receive treatment after diagnosis, despite 2,000 of those being considered urgent patients, according to NHS England figures for the week ending on 1 January. The conclusions comes from figures seen by the Health Service Journal and reported in The Guardian newspaper.
The FBU/UCLan studies have been in the Scientific Reports journal and there are in total four studies:
The studies have been published alongside a paper focused on cancer mortality rates among firefighters. Scottish Firefighters Occupational Cancer and Disease Mortality Rates: 2000-2020 has been published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine.