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From the Editor: October 2014

We’ve all heard that firefighters are at a higher risk than everyone else for cancer. But how much higher is the risk and for which types of cancers?

September 23, 2014
By Laura King


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We’ve all heard that firefighters are at a higher risk than everyone else for cancer. But how much higher is the risk and for which types of cancers? What research is being done to confirm the links between fire fighting and cancer?

For that mater, since we are working with the Breast Cancer Society of Canada this month to increase awareness of all cancers, and breast cancer in particular, are female firefighters – whose physiology makes them more prone to certain cancers – at an even higher risk for cancer than their male counterparts? Has anyone tried to find out?

The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) has some answers. Its 2013 study shows the rate of a rare cancer called mesolthelioma, which is believed to be caused by exposure to asbestos, two times greater among firefighters than the rest of the population. And firefighters, a study says, have higher incidences of cancers of the respiratory, digestive and urinary systems.

Part of the problem, according to the NIOSH research, is the flame-retardant coatings used on combustible products. The coatings, when they burn, are toxic. But to convince the manufacturers to change the formulas, advocates need proof – proof of the link between firefighters and higher cancer rates. And there’s the kink in the hoseline. In the United States, a bill before the Washington State senate to ban toxic flame retardants stalled in the chamber; at least someone had championed the cause. Lawmakers want that elusive proof: proof requires studies and statistics; and studies and statistics require research, which requires cash.

Here in Canada, there are champions. As Jay Shaw writes on page 8, Winnipeg firefighter and union president Alex Forrest is, perhaps, the fiercest advocate for research to confirm the link between fire fighting and cancer. Forrest is frustrated with the lack of funding for research. Forrest’s global campaign for funding for research is something every fire department in Canada needs to get behind.

Additionally, the Fire Chiefs Association of BC is funding a review of literature available on cancer in female firefighters. The project started when an FCABC committee considered ways to get more women in fire fighting. Committee members wondered if women stayed away from fire because of a perceived higher risk of cancer. The committee asked Canadian researcher Dr. Ken Kunz if he believes female firefighters have a greater risk of cancer than males.

“Almost certainly,” Kunz told FCABC president Tim Pley. “Women have body parts that are more likely to attract carcinogens.”

And that, Pley said, was a game changer.

“If women are at higher risk of cancer because they are firefighters, then fire-service leaders owe it to current female firefighters to look into the issue, determine the risk, and then look for ways to mitigate that risk. And, if we are considering encouraging more women to enter the firefighting field, we owe it to them to determine the risks that we might be asking them to assume.

“Hopefully,” Pley said, “we can encourage other organizations to fund deeper research on this topic.”

As is the case with fire, prevention is the first line of defence against cancer, and our writers – experts on health, fitness and nutrition – have provided a thorough account of all the things you can do to decrease your cancer risk. 

Thanks to all of them for supporting this pink initiative!


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