UCLan scientists warn of urgent cancer risk posed by protective clothing

Groundbreaking research by Preston academics is calling for urgent action to help save fire fighters from the danger of their own protective clothing.

Prof Anna Stec
Prof Anna Stec

Researchers at the University of Central Lancashire revealed two years ago that that skin absorption is firefighters’ leading cause of exposure to cancerous gases created during a fire - not inhalation

Now the latest report of their ground-breaking study has revealed the extent of the serious health risks to UK firefighters following exposure to toxic fire effluents - the chemicals released during a fire,.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The independent study, a UK first, was commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) , and is the latest in a growing body of international evidence suggesting an increased risk to firefighters of developing cancer and other diseases.

Toxins were even found on the inside of a fire helmet

Fires produce a cocktail of toxic, irritant and carcinogenic chemicals in the form of aerosols, dusts, fibres, smoke and fumes or gases and vapours.

The report includes a summary of UCLan’s on-site testing at 18 fire stations as well as more than 10,000 responses to a national firefighter survey run jointly between the FBU and UCLan.

The findings show that indoor air testing at a number of fire stations and training centres highlighted that UK firefighters were still being exposed to high levels of toxic contaminants during and after a fire, as cancer-causing chemicals remain on personal protective clothing, equipment, and elsewhere at the fire ground. Test samples revealed carcinogens inside firefighters’ helmets, on PPE, and even breathing apparatus mask filters.

Union bosses are concerned that UK safety regulations aren't as tough as in other countries, such as Canada and the USA, and are calling for urgent action and scientists have created a best practice guide for fire and rescue services, putting forward a number of urgent recommendations to minimise firefighters’ exposure to toxic fire effluents.

The UCLan report is a UK first. photo by Mark Thomas

UK law requires firefighters’ PPE to meet heat-resistance, heat transfer, and water resistance requirements, but it is not required to protect wearers from toxic gases and particulates.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

This best-practice report is the first stage of ongoing research examining the link between firefighters’ exposure to toxic fire effluents and the risk of cancer and other diseases.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “Firefighters risk their lives every day to keep their communities safe. But it’s clear that the risk to their health doesn’t stop when the fire has been extinguished."

He added: " This research is a crucial first step to definitively proving the link between firefighting, toxic contaminants, and cancer in the UK. The Health and Safety Executive must urgently implement the recommendations to bring life-saving measures into place as soon as possible."

Anna Stec, UCLan's Professor in Fire Chemistry and Toxicity led the study and said: "These recommendations are vital if we are to improve firefighters’ health and well-being, keep them safe and prevent exposure to toxic chemicals, which can lead to life-changing problems or premature death. They must be implemented swiftly to reduce the health risks firefighters face.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"This report highlights some of the risks and sources of contamination that firefighters are exposed to on a regular basis, and how these can be controlled.

"We hope that this guidance will be adopted and used by the fire sector across the UK and beyond so the overall exposure of firefighters and their families is reduced."