New UK study links cancer and firefighting

Around 12 firefighters who were involved in the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 have been diagnosed with terminal cancer, it has been found, with expert research confirming a link between firefighting and cancer.

An exclusive from the Mirror has revealed that some firefighters who were part of the Grenfell rescue mission are now “suffering with rare cancers linked to the high levels of unprecedented exposure to contaminants during the huge rescue effort”.

These firefighters are thought to have digestive cancers and leukaemia, with many of them only in their 40s. It is believed that the number of firefighters diagnosed could rise to 20.

The investigation is in line with recent findings from an independent study carried out by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). Commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), the study found that fire contaminants are linked to significant physical and mental health issues among UK firefighters.

Firefighters four times more likely to get cancer

Led by Professor Anna Stec, Professor in Fire Chemistry and Toxicity at UCLan, and using mortality records obtained from the National Records of Scotland, the study surveyed over 10,000 firefighters around the UK – both serving and retired – representing 24% of the UK’s total firefighter workforce.

The findings, which have also been published in the Scientific Reports journal, suggest that the mortality rate of firefighters from all cancers is 1.6 times higher than the general public – in particular, prostate cancer is 3.8 times higher, leukaemia is 3.17 times higher, and oesophageal cancer is 2.42 times higher.

Of those firefighters who were surveyed, 4.1% were found to have a cancer diagnosis. The study also revealed the following:

  • Instances of cancer were 323% higher among firefighters aged between 35 and 39 compared to the general population.
  • UK firefighters who served for at least 15 years were 1.7 times more likely to develop cancer compared to those who served less time.
  • 36% of the firefighters with cancer were diagnosed with skin cancer – making it the most prevalent cancer that was reported.

In addition to the above, it was found that firefighters were twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer if they had “soot in their nose/throat or remained in their personal protective equipment (PPE) – which is often contaminated – for more than four hours after attending a fire.

The research by UCLan highlights the severe toll that firefighting can have on individuals, particularly in cases where unprecedented incidents, such as Grenfell, occur. It also supports the ruling from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is a World Health Organisation (WHO) body. In July 2022, IARC confirmed that “occupational exposure as a firefighter causes cancer”.

In response to the recent study, Riccardo la Torre, a national official for the FBU, said: “We already knew that fire contaminants were very likely causing cancer and other diseases in firefighters. Now, we have evidence that cements that belief and also shows that contaminants can impact their mental health.

These are independent, statistically significant, peer-reviewed findings that are specific to the UK. I’m proud that the Fire Brigades Union commissioned this project to properly address such an important issue. The evidence is now undeniable and the days of hearing that we are behind other countries on this matter must surely end. We must act now to make firefighting a safer profession. This is an occupational hazard, and no one should get ill, or worse, just for going to work. It’s important we learn and make the improvements in memory of every firefighter we have ever lost to these terrible diseases.”

Firefighting and mental health

The study also examined the link between a firefighter’s exposure to fire toxins or effluents and mental health. It was discovered that 20% of respondents reported having a mental health condition. The following was also observed:

  • The rate of anxiety among surveyed firefighters was twice that of the general population.
  • The rate of depression was nearly three times that of the general population.
  • Firefighters who noticed soot in their nose or throat for a day or more after attending incidents and firefighters who remained in their (often contaminated) PPE for over four hours after incidents were also two times more likely to report mental health disorders.

Indeed, these figures reflect some of the views expressed by firefighters in the recent Independent Culture Review of London Fire Brigade by Nazir Afzal OBE. Afzal’s report stressed the “seismic impact” that Grenfell, described as a “traumatic event”, had on staff members. 

Professor Stec noted that the “findings of the UK Firefighter Contamination Survey not only confirm what we already know, that firefighters face a higher risk of cancer than the general population, but also brings to light new challenges firefighters have to face.”

Previous research on the mental health of firefighters has focused on psychological factors, but we now have evidence that there is a strong relationship between mental health and exposure to fire effluents.

“Everyone deserves to feel safe at work, and these studies show that measures such as health monitoring and reducing exposure from contaminants at the workplace will play an important part in protecting firefighters, both mentally and physically,” she added.

Riccardo la Torre added that legislation was needed to ensure that firefighters were better protected: “No firefighter should suffer unnecessarily and there is much more that fire services can be doing to reduce exposure to fire contaminants. We demand to see more action on prevention, health monitoring, and facilities and contracts for proper PPE and workwear cleaning. Ministers and Fire Bosses can no longer bury their heads in the sand on this life and death matter. It is of absolute urgency that they act and this research only reinforces that point.”

The FBU has been working with UCLan since 2019 to better understand the link between cancer and firefighting through the DECON campaign