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The national firefighting health monitoring research project, commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), aims to close the current gap in adequate health monitoring for at-risk firefighters by utilising the most recent findings from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).
Recent publications from UCLan detail the higher risk of those UK firefighters between 35 and 39 years old getting occupational cancer compared to the rest of the population in the same age category. At 323%, the increase in risk is a significant one, leading to calls from the FBU for urgent action to protect firefighters.
FBU National Officer, Riccardo la Torre said: "With this vital research, firefighters are taking action to address the serious health risks they face at work. Following decades of government and employer inaction, firefighters have had enough and are driving forward the protections we need to stop preventable deaths.
"This research must be a wake-up call to our employers: we urgently need UK-wide regular health monitoring to catch occupational diseases early and save firefighters’ lives. This project is a good start, but now we need employers and the government to show up and take responsibility.”
The initial round of testing in the UK included firefighters from Greater Manchester and Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service; the programme is now being extended to London. Up to 300 firefighters are expected to contribute to the project by providing blood and urine samples. Following that, these samples will be examined "for the number of cancer and other disease biomarkers and toxic chemicals."
The obtained results can then be used to identify evidence "linking occupational cancers with exposure to toxic fire chemicals" and to detect cancer and other diseases in their early stages. UCLan hopes to test 1,000 firefighters across the UK as more fire and rescue services sign up for the research project.
"This research project will without a doubt save firefighters' lives, and we welcome the London Fire Brigade's cooperation on this round of cancer testing," said Gareth Beeton, chair of FBU London. The Fire Brigades Union commissioned this study, which was partially funded by contributions to our Firefighters Lottery.
"Firefighters made it possible for this research, but now we need employers to treat it seriously on a broad scale. It's past time to prevent and treat these diseases because they are both preventable and treatable.
Professor Anna Stec, a leading expert on fire toxicity at UCLan, is in charge of the research project. She says, "I am really pleased that London Fire Brigade supports and recognises [the] importance of this project.
"It is generally acknowledged that firefighters experience rare cancer deaths up to 15-20 years before the general population. There are few chances of recovery for some of these cancers and other diseases because they are discovered too late. Health monitoring is one step in ensuring that firefighters are adequately protected, according to her.
London Fire Commissioner, Andy Roe, added: “Our firefighters must be as safe as possible at work, and we’re pleased to support this research project to improve the fire and rescue sector’s understanding of the impact of contaminant exposure to firefighters over the course of their careers.
“We have come a long way in understanding and protecting staff from the hazards they face undertaking their jobs, but this is only possible if we continue to research the risks and the effects they may have.”
The study conducted by Professor Stec's group is thought to be the pioneering one of its kind in the UK. It comes after the World Health Organization's 2022 declaration that "firefighter occupational exposure causes cancer."
The London Fire Brigade, the FBU, and UCLan will collaborate to facilitate the testing during the most recent phase of the project with London's firefighters, which will last until 24 June 2023.
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04 October 2023
05 September 2023