Scotland’s DECON campaign shows ‘significant progress’

A campaign to protect firefighters and raise awareness of toxic contaminants has seen “significant progress” in Scotland, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) reports.

Launched by the FBU in collaboration with the University of Central Lancashire – where research is being led by Professor Anna Stec – the DECON campaign aims to understand the link between fire contaminants and cancer.

According to UCLan, firefighters in the UK are four times more likely to get cancer in their working life compared to the average working person. The campaign, which was launched in 2019, was inspired by emerging research in other countries such as Canada and Australia, which has led to better protection for firefighters.

Earlier this month, Professor Stec was invited to visit Scotland to engage with local fire crews and share her findings. This series of meetings included the FBU, the Scottish Parliament, and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS).

FBU Scotland Health and Safety rep, Barry Johnstone, explained: “After speaking to Anna directly and hearing all about the research carried out, I thought it was vitally important that the Service meet Anna and got a full understanding of the magnitude of what is at stake, and the need for action to be taken now in order to prevent staff from becoming sick from attending incidents.

Having time to reflect on what hopefully will turn out to be a very constructive week, I feel the meetings we had with the SFRS went really well.

The research carried out by world-renowned Professor Anna Stec and her team at UCLan show clearly that firefighters are at risk of being contaminated at incidents whilst carrying out their work. It is simply unacceptable for people to go to their place of work and potentially be at risk when action can be taken to mitigate that risk.

Later, the FBU and SFRS released a joint statement, saying, “We will never completely eliminate the risk faced by firefighters, but we must act now to increase awareness, minimise exposure, and implement early and regular health screening. This is a journey that will take time, but steps must be taken now to help protect firefighters.”

The statement acknowledged the work being carried out by Professor Stec and reiterated the need to “implement urgent changes and, where required, enforcement to ensure firefighters are supported to adopt safe behaviours”.

They added: “This commitment to work jointly goes further, with SFRS confirming their desire to join the FBU in exploring the potential for legislative changes and for health screening to be offered to firefighters to promote early detection of cancers and diseases in firefighters, which is proven to dramatically increase survivability following a cancer diagnosis.

Those involved with the campaign have been raising awareness of the issue at all levels, with Maggie Chapman MSP bringing a motion to Scottish Parliament. “In spring and summer this year, we were repeatedly warned of extreme wildfires across Scotland. We saw blazes spread rapidly through urban areas in England.

Research shows that firefighters come into regular contact with carcinogenic combustion products. They have high risks of cancer and get these cancers earlier in life than the general population. In fact, the World Health Organisation recently classified firefighting as a carcinogenic profession. We clearly have a responsibility to ensure our firefighters who tackle these blazes are safe,” she said.

She also called for decontamination equipment and routine health screening.

You can find out more about the DECON campaign here.

(Photograph by the Fire Brigades Union)