Montreal firefighters hope to prevent cancer with decontamination measures
'It’s going to reach epidemic proportions in the next couple of years,' says fire association president
Even in the dead of winter, Montreal firefighters are going to be hosed off before leaving the scene of a fire in an effort to reduce the amount of cancer-causing contaminants they are exposed to.
The departments' new decontamination measures come after a 2018 study from the University of Fraser Valley found that Canadian firefighters are killed by cancer about three times more often than the general population.
That study found that 86 per cent of fatal claims were cancer related and Montreal is no exception.
"It's going up a lot," said Montreal Firefighters' Association president Chris Ross.
"Much like cigarette smoking, it takes many, many years, if not decades, for that build up to happen inside the bodies."
Other departments across Canada have had extensive decontamination measures in place for years, recognizing that firefighters can be exposed to around 70 million different types of chemicals over the course of their career.
More cancer deaths every year
There were 13 Montreal firefighter deaths in 2018 due occupational exposure to carcinogens, Ross said. There were nine deaths in 2017, seven in 2016 and five in 2015, he said.
"It's going to reach epidemic proportions in the next couple of years," Ross told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.
He said there are active-duty, non-smoking firefighters being diagnosed with and dying of cancer, usually toward the end of their career, while others are dying soon into retirement.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia are common cancers firefighters in Montreal are diagnosed with, he said.
A station in Montréal-Nord is one of the city's first to implement the new decontamination measures and others will soon follow, he said. Some renovations are needed to ready the stations.
Ross said the decontamination starts with removing as many contaminants as possible at the fire scene to avoid bringing contaminants into the trucks and stations.
While getting sprayed with water in the middle of a Quebec winter sounds uncomfortable, Ross said firefighters are used to it as they fight fires no matter the weather.
"They're unfortunately going to be a little wet, but once we're finished, they're free to return to the station," he said.
Firefighters are rinsed down with detergent, he said, and then, back at the station, the decontamination is more advanced.
Firefighters will then take a shower within the first hour of returning to the station, working to get any contaminants off the skin so they're not absorbed into the body.
Still, more studies will need to be done as firefighters review their techniques and evaluate their effectiveness.
"It's really new science that is coming out now," Ross said.
"We know what the problem is and we have an idea of what the solution is. I don't think we know how effective that solution is going to be right now."
With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak