The archetypal image of a firefighter: emerging from a smouldering building, surrounded by flames and smoke; gear covered in soot.
What the image doesn't show is the 265 known carcinogens in a typical residential structure fire. Some of the chemicals found at fire scenes can include arsenic, a heavy metal commonly found in smoke. Arsenic can cause kidney, liver, and prostate cancer. Then there is benzene, a primary component of PVC combustion. Benzene can cause multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Formaldehyde can be found in adhesives for furniture and can cause nasopharynx (throat) cancer and leukemia.
A March 2021 study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found "...a significant increase in the incidence of rectal, prostate, bladder and testicular cancers as well as mesothelioma and malignant melanoma in firefighters compared to the general population." And according to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) 52, full-time Alberta firefighters have died from recognized occupational cancers in the past 10 years, cancers formally deemed to have resulted from workplace exposure and were covered under the Workers Compensation Board (WCB) of Alberta.
“Cancer is an epidemic in the fire service. It’s the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths among Alberta firefighters, as it is across Canada,” said Matt Osborne, a Calgary firefighter who serves as AFFA President, in a press release.
This is why the International Association of Fire Fighters, in partnership with the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN), has designated January as Fire Fighter Cancer Awareness Month.
For civilians who have seen firefighters in action, it would seem the job is banally self-explanatory. Firefighters arrive on the scene of a fire and put it out; sometimes they go into burning structures to save others and thus their responsibilities end when the fire is put out and people are safe. However, there are a plethora of procedures that firefighters go through behind the scenes to mitigate their exposure to toxic chemicals that can develop into cancer later on in life.
ntaminated with chemicals. He also underlined that civilian clothes and bunker gear are never washed together. Though there isn't a significant amount of research on the risks to families of firefighters, Elgie said that he and other firefighters do not store bunker gear in their garages, nor do they transport it in their cars.
Acting Deputy Chief Pirie also noted that there has been an evolution in the fire service with regards to the link between firefighting and the increased risk of developing cancer.
"We knew that in the early 2000s, [when] we were seeing the links between the work and cancer rates, but it wasn't until research caught up to show that [it] was really the absorption that was occurring," he said. "[And it's] not only absorption through the skin, but ingestion. So absolutely, attitudes have changed."
For career firefighters like Pirie, though cancer prevention is not a short-term strategy, it is a fairly new concept, one that does try to mitigate cancer risks, but not something that alleviates the stress associated with the increased risk of cancer in the profession.
"Absolutely, it causes stress in all of us, especially people like myself who [have] worked as a firefighter out in the field before these procedures or even the understanding of contamination," he said. "A lot of us have had careers that have gone past that so it gives you a lot of stress; especially when you lose a lot of friends to those occupational cancers."
But what of that quintessential image of a firefighter face smudged with soot? Considering that cancer is now the number one cause of firefighters' line of duty deaths, Senior Firefighter Matt Elgie said it's not a dirty helmet or gear that summons pride, it's clean gear that is the focus of firefighters.
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