When the Fire Goes Out, the Risk Doesn’t End for Firefighters
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When the Fire Goes Out, the Risk Doesn’t End for Firefighters

According to a new study by the University of the Fraser Valley, firefighters are two to three times more likely to die from cancer than the general population. Cancer is the leading cause of death for firefighters accounting for 86 percent of fatalities. This is despite the fact that firefighters usually are in much better shape than most people and pay attention to their health. 

The study blames carcinogens released during fires and in live training exercises. Repeated exposure to soot and tar released, either by inhaling or skin contact, increases the cancer risk. The longer the length of service the greater the risk.

The best preventative is decontamination started on site, rather than back in the fire hall. 

“If you can see it or smell it, there’s a chance you’re bringing contaminants into your body,” says captain Bryan Erwin of Colwood Fire Rescue, located near Victoria, BC, who leads a team of 8 career firefighters and 32 volunteers. 

The team in Colwood has developed the following decontamination protocol:

On-Site Assessment

  • Breathing gear remains worn while an assessment is conducted.
  • Low threat is dealt with by thoroughly scrubbing gear and tools at the scene.
  • High threat is dealt with by sealing gear in heavy-duty bags.
  • Medical gloves are worn while handling gear.

Truck Contamination

  • Dirty gear in bags goes at the back of the truck in the open air.
  • Painter’s gear (suit, hoods, and booties) is donned before entering the truck to reduce cross-contamination.

Hall Contamination

  • Two washing machines are used, one for uniforms and one for clothing that hasn’t been at a fire scene.
  • Dirty gear is stored away safely until wash day.
  • Masks and gloves are worn when loading the machine.
  • The dirty gear washing machine is flushed by running it empty to clear residual contaminants.


  • It is vital that volunteers shower before heading home after being on scene to not bring contaminants into the home.


  • Dirty gear is often viewed by long-time firefighters as a sign of pride in doing a good job.
  • This culture and mindset needs to change to help eliminate the risk of cancer.


  • Paying attention to proper nutrition, exercise, fitness, and personal wellness is the first step.
  • Early screening—10 years earlier than normally recommended—is also advised.
  • Fire inspectors, too, should follow decontamination routines because they are also exposed to contaminants on scene.

Read the complete study.

Source: WorkSafe Magazine

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