Firefighters risk their lives on a daily basis to tackle fires and rescue people from floods, road traffic collisions and other dangerous incidents. But there are other life-threatening, health risks associated with the profession too, and cancer is one of them.

Cancer deaths amongst firefighters have been growing steadily since the 1970s. It’s well known that firefighters are exposed to dangerous chemicals, such as carcinogens, cancerous gases and dust on a routine basis as they respond to incidents, but the hidden risk of toxins unknowingly contaminating people’s skin after the job is done is talked about less.

According to research by the University of Central Lancashire, firefighters are at a greater risk of developing cancer not just as a result of exposure to toxic fumes, but also if their kits aren’t cleaned properly after use.

Why are firefighters at risk of developing occupational cancer?

Research has found that firefighters are at greater risk of developing occupational cancer as a result of absorbing dangerous chemicals through their skin when handling contaminated clothing and equipment.

Firefighters’ skin can absorb these dangerous chemicals if uniforms and equipment aren’t cleaned properly, and regularly, after they’ve been used in the field. Firefighters are not only at risk of occupational cancer - long-term exposure to harmful substances and dangerous chemicals during the course of their duties can also cause a number of respiratory problems.

"The risks of exposure to hazardous substances from contaminated work clothes came to light when a growing number of people developed asbestos-related diseases despite never working in traditional “at risk” industries themselves,” explained Warinder Juss, personal injury lawyer at Thompsons Solicitors.

"Plumbers, laggers and other tradespeople carried toxic asbestos dust home on overalls and work clothes and unknowingly increased the risk of exposure to others in the home. Now we see a similar risk facing fire service personnel, where the uniforms and kit designed to keep them safe during a blaze – if handled incorrectly afterwards – puts them, and their loved ones at risk of serious health complications in later life.”

How can firefighters reduce their risk of developing occupational cancer?

To reduce the risk of developing occupational cancer, firefighters should:

  • Ensure their uniform and kit are thoroughly, and safely, cleaned on a regular basis
  • Remove their contaminated uniform as soon as possible after completing a call
  • Store their uniform in a dedicated place away from other people to prevent further contamination
  • Wash and decontaminate their body as soon as possible after each fire to avoid further exposure
  • Clean their necks, faces and arms before going home to prevent bringing harmful substances into the household.

How can Thompsons Solicitors help?

Unlike America, neither exposure to toxic gases nor their long-term effects on the health of firefighters are officially monitored in the UK at present. Thompsons Solicitors has launched the Under The COSHH campaign to help raise awareness of the dangers facing workers in all sectors, and provide workers and trade unionists with the tools and information they need to stay safe while at work.

For more information about the work we are doing, visit our Under the COSHH campaign page.