British Columbia

Cancer top cause of firefighter fatal workplace claims, study finds

Cancer makes up the vast majority of fatal workplace claims by Canadian firefighters, according to a new study from the University of the Fraser Valley.

The University of the Fraser Valley study found cancer made up 86% of fatal claims

Coquitlam firefighters come out of a burning home covered in foam in this photo from 2015. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Cancer is a leading cause of death among Canadian firefighters, according to a University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) study, which draws on a decade of data from worker compensation boards.

The study, titled Determinants of Injury and Death in Canadian Firefighters: A Case for a National Firefighter Wellness Surveillance System, found that 86 per cent of all firefighter workplace fatality claims were blamed on cancer, and firefighters are killed by cancer at a rate about three times higher than the general population.

"Now we're talking about between 50 and 60 firefighters that are dying [from cancer] annually across Canada associated with their profession, and that's very concerning," said Len Garis, Surrey's fire chief and an adjunct professor at UFV who co-authored the study.

Garis said cancer rates among firefighters increase dramatically with age, with the 35-to-39-year-old group accounting for only one per cent of workplace fatal cancer claims among firefighters. The 60-to-64-year-old group accounts for 17 per cent of the fatal cancer claims, while the 65 and older group makes up nearly half of the claims.

Earlier screening for firefighters

According to Garis, that steep rise in cancer deaths associated with age and how long people work in the profession means firefighters should begin cancer screening earlier than normal when they're about 35 years old.

"It may not prevent them from contracting cancer, but certainly it should reduce the number that are dying from it and that's our goal in this research," said Garis.

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis says cancer shows up later in firefighters' careers and often cuts short life after retirement. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The Surrey fire chief said although crews take precautions with protective gear and breathing apparatus, each fire they attend is another exposure that contributes to the risk of cancer, with household items made from hydrocarbon or polymer-type materials becoming carcinogenic when they burn.

"We know that the carcinogens can be absorbed through the skin — they can swallow it, in terms of their perspiration," said Garis.

"Firefighters often complain about smelling like smoke for several days afterwards, after the smoke is exhausting from their body or emanating from their bodies." 

Nearly seven per cent of fatal claims were blamed on traumatic injury, while cardiovascular system diseases made up about five per cent of fatal claims.

Mental health concerns

Mental health accounted for 0.4 per cent of the fatal claims in the study, but Garis said that figure is misleading, since researchers have seen post-traumatic stress disorder lead to an increasing number of firefighter deaths in recent years, and the study mostly drew on data from 2006 - 2015.

Garis suggested that fire departments implement health and wellness surveillance systems to try to "to get in front of this thing," but aside from causing fewer fires that expose crews to carcinogenic risk, there isn't much the general public can do to reduce firefighter cancer deaths.

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