The risk of exposure to cancer-causing contaminants at fires can be reduced with the adoption of simple procedures.
Shaun Williams remembers that, when he was a child in 1976, his retained firefighter father, Gareth, was paged to respond to a large 20-pump forest fire in Snowdonia, North Wales. He was gone for three days. Fires like these were so intense and relief resources so scant that leaving the fire ground during the operation was not possible. When Gareth and his colleagues did get time to rest, they would have stayed at the scene. Incidents like this stand out in Shaun’s memory.
Several years later, in 1981, Gareth was diagnosed with throat cancer. Despite several operations to remove the cancerous lump from his neck, it eventually spread to his brain. He died aged just 45.
“Back then, the link between firefighting and cancer wasn’t a thing,” says Shaun, who went on to follow in his father’s footsteps, serving at the same fire station, Betws-y-Coed, for the best part of 20 years. “No one can say for sure if his cancer was a result of the job, but I think about it a lot. They wouldn’t have worn BA at forest fires and face masks weren’t in use back then.”
Shaun wonders if the regular call-outs to tackle fires involving bracken – common on the slopes of Snowdon, and containing a carcinogenic compound called ptaquiloside – contributed to his father’s condition.
There is a growing body of research to suggest that it may have.
A landmark study by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire found that a firefighter’s risk of developing cancer is increased by dangerously high levels of harmful chemicals that remain on PPE following exposure to smoke.
It concluded that skin absorption, rather than inhalation, is the leading cause of exposure to carcinogenic gases created during a fire, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Anna Stec, lead researcher and professor in fire chemistry and toxicity at the university, said: “We already know the incidence of cancer is higher amongst firefighters compared to the general public, and that it is their leading cause of death. We have now identified skin absorption as their principal source of exposure to cancerous gases.”
Researchers came to the worrying conclusion that methods used to clean firefighters’ PPE are not effectively implemented. This means that kit is already contaminated when it is next used and the length of time skin is exposed to dangerous fire toxins is increased.
The FBU has issued guidance outlining straightforward measures that members can follow that will reduce the risk of being exposed to contaminants.
Simple steps such as cleaning PPE after each incident and using wet-wipes to remove soot from the skin after a fire will help to reduce exposure.
Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service now stores wet-wipes on board every appliance and, after a fire, it is the norm for contaminated BA kit to be placed in a sealed bag and put in a separate locker on the appliance. Gloves have also been issued for servicing BA equipment after a fire, to stop contaminants being absorbed through the hands.
It is a move welcomed by Gosport firefighter Steven Burns, who was diagnosed with bladder cancer five years ago. He has since become a passionate advocate for decontamination after every fire call.
“There is a lot we can do to protect ourselves,” the 46-year-old says. “If you or your PPE smells of smoke, you are contaminated and you need to get it cleaned up as soon as possible.”
It was only by chance that Steven was diagnosed in time for doctors to act. The former Royal Navy officer had volunteered to take part in trials of a new piece of army kit – known informally as the combat codpiece – designed to protect soldiers’ genitals from roadside bombs in Afghanistan.
His medical showed that there was blood in his urine and he was advised to see his GP immediately.
For a few months Steven ignored the warning signs, believing they were a common symptom in long-distance runners. He had been training hard for a marathon and had always been a fitness fanatic. It was only after returning from a call-out to a car fire that he knew he had to do something. He was feeling depleted, faint, sick.
Just days later, on 7 January 2013 – Steven won’t forget that date – doctors found a fist-sized tumour in his bladder.
“When the doctor broke the news, it hit me so hard,” he says. “I tried standing up and just fainted, hit the floor, cracked my nose wide open.
“Worst Day of My Life…”
“When I got home to my family, I looked like I’d been in the wars. My little girl burst into tears when she saw me. Breaking the news to my wife … it was the worst day of my life.” Now, 18 painful operations and 12 rounds of chemotherapy later, he is in remission.
It’s been a hard slog of a journey but one that could have been easier if the cancer had been caught earlier. Steven regrets not going to the doctors at an earlier stage and doesn’t want other firefighters to make that same mistake.
His message is clear – do everything you can to decontaminate yourself after a shout. And do not ignore any symptoms. Get to the doctors straight away.
“I don’t want other firefighters going through what’s happened to me,” he says. “Constant invasive procedures like colonoscopies and having to self-catheterise; you feel violated and degraded.
“If there’s anything we can do to stop so many firefighters contracting cancer; we need to be doing it. Firefighters need to be doing it.”