FIREFIGHTERS in Scotland are almost twice as likely to die from cancer as the general population, according to a major new study.
Mortality rates were particularly high for prostate and esophageal cancer and myeloid leukemia.
Researchers say early detection and compensation measures in the workplace are “urgently needed” after finding firefighters were also getting cancer and dying at younger ages when they might not be eligible for routine screening.
They called for an “immediate review” of the UK’s Workers’ Accident Advisory Council’s failure to recognize cancer – with the exception of mesothelioma – as an occupational hazard for firefighters.
Firefighters in some parts of Canada, Australia and the US already have a legal right to medical assistance and/or compensation, but until now UK authorities have insisted there is “insufficient evidence” that exposure to chemicals in fire fumes is linked associated with an increased risk of cancer.
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The study, led by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), used Scottish death certificates from 2000 to 2020 to demonstrate for the first time significant excess mortality from cancer and other diseases among UK firefighters.
During that period, 285 active or retired Scottish firefighters aged 30 to 74 had died of cancer.
Overall, this resulted in a cancer mortality rate among firefighters that was 1.6 times higher than that of the general male population over the same period.
Statistically significant increases were found in myeloid leukemia – in which the mortality rate was 3.2 times higher – as well as in prostate cancer (3.8 times higher) and esophageal cancer (2.4 times higher).
Death rates for cancers of the urinary system — such as kidney and bladder cancer — were also nearly double, at 1.94.
Fire Brigades Union national officer Riccardo la Torre said the findings “should appall the fire departments and the government”.
He said: “This is about the deaths of firefighters who didn’t need to. We know there are clear ways to make things better for firefighters.
“We need health surveillance. We need exposure monitoring. We need laws that ensure affected firefighters get the compensation they deserve.
“We are currently lacking in all of these areas.”
Scottish male firefighters were also much more likely to die from other diseases such as heart disease and stroke compared to other males.
Death certificates of female firefighters were excluded from the analysis because the number – 11 – was too small a sample size to make meaningful comparisons with the general female population.
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The study finds that early diagnosis and improved treatment have resulted in a downward trend in overall cancer mortality as the population ages.
However, she adds that “this downward trend is not observed among firefighters, who tend to show a worrying upward trend in cancer deaths over time.”
It goes on to say: “There can be several plausible explanations for this observation…[for example] Scottish firefighters appear to have higher cancer mortality rates at younger ages compared to the general population.
“These firefighters may be too young to offer them national NHS cancer screening programmes, which typically target older populations and prevent early diagnosis and treatment.
“Furthermore, firefighters may be more susceptible to certain cancers that are less common in the general population and therefore not covered by national screening programs – which in turn delays diagnosis and treatment.”
“Finally, the increasing dominance of synthetic materials (which produce a more toxic fire gas) in modern times may contribute in part to the apparent increase in cancer deaths among firefighters over time.”
The researchers say that while decontamination procedures are improving, the results “suggest an urgent need to better support firefighter health” — including revisions to screening guidelines.
They write: “Early detection is considered one of the best predictors of cancer survival.
“Given the younger age at which firefighters appear to be contracting and dying from cancer, a dedicated health care program is urgently needed.”
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They go on to call for “remedial action” to ensure firefighters who develop cancer as a result of their service “have access to necessary financial and medical support.”
“Such measures are being introduced in countries like Canada, the US and Australia, but not in the UK or Europe,” they note.
Anna Stec, lead author of the study and Professor of Fire Chemistry and Toxicity at UCLan, said: “This is the first study of its kind in the UK and the research brings to light the wide range of occupational hazards faced by firefighters.
“It is important that firefighters continue to do their job as safely as possible, and research shows that measures such as health monitoring and reducing exposure to pollutants in the workplace will play an important role in protecting firefighters.”
The study appears in the Journal of Occupational Medicine.