Toxic smoke turning EU firefighters into cancer sufferers

Europe's insufficient construction regulations and lack of work-related compensation is exposing EU firefighters to the risk of cancer and suffering, warns Pavel Poc.

By Pavel Poc

20 May 2015

Fire is both fascinating and dreadful and represents one of the oldest and most menacing threats to our daily life. As such, fire safety is an appealing subject. Nonetheless, not many people know that most casualties in a fire are caused not by the flames directly, but rather by smoke.

Data from across the globe indicate that toxic fumes from fires are responsible for more than half of all fire-related injuries or deaths.

Moreover, even fewer people know that the deadly potential of smoke is not limited to the fire itself. If in the short-term fumes and gases may impede evacuation and kill victims on the spot due to their burning, irritating and asphyxiate effects, in the long run survivors may suffer and die from toxic smoke post-exposure traumas, such as pulmonary complications and, above all, cancer.


This represents a crucial issue for fire fighters, who are constantly exposed throughout their career to toxic fumes and effluents. As reported by Alex Forrest, a member of the international association of firefighters (IAFF), cancer is the single biggest killer in his profession.

Everywhere in the world firefighters are being diagnosed with occupational cancer at an alarming rate. “It’s not one fire that kills us, but the hundreds that we fight over our careers. At every fire we are exposed to carcinogens that enter our bodies through digestion, absorption and inhalation. This danger is getting worse and we have minimal ability to protect ourselves,” says Forrest.

The danger is getting worse because the increasing use of plastics in building construction has led to a multiplication of carcinogenic elements in building fires, while building regulations around the world focus primarily on ignition and flame spread properties of construction products, which in turn has encouraged the use of chemicals in these products, which unfortunately generate toxic fire effluents.

In order to raise awareness on fire fighters’ occupational exposure to carcinogens and discuss how EU institutions can address it, I hosted a roundtable on this topic in March 2015, in collaboration with MEPs against cancer, the association of European cancer leagues, the European fire fighters unions alliance and Fire Safe Europe.

Researchers, fire fighters, cancer patients, NGOs and other stakeholders gathered around the table with MEPs to present evidence and testimonies on how firefighting is actually becoming cancer-fighting and hold discussions on possible solutions.

Three recent studies carried out in European Nordic countries, the United States and Australia demonstrate the deadly connection between toxic smoke and cancer. In the US, Canada and Australia, firefighters are supported by a presumptive cancer legislation that acknowledges the occupational nature of their disease and entitles them and their families to the same compensation they would get for a work-related injury or death.

Regrettably, this is not the case in EU countries. Therefore, being from the Czech Republic, I initiated a debate there on this issue with the Czech minister of the interior on finding a quick and appropriate solution through our national legislation.

Additionally, current EU regulations and standards for construction products do not take into account smoke toxicity, thus leaving the greatest fire-related threat unaddressed. Solving this regulation flaw would be easy.

The international organisation for standardisation has already developed a test and calculation method for smoke toxicity, which simply needs to be incorporated in the construction products regulation.

May 25-31 is the European week against cancer. Besides remembering and honouring all cancer victims, we should take this opportunity to reflect on how to secure EU citizens' health in the face of such a dreadful threat.

Toxic smoke from fire is a major health hazard for fire victims and the firefighters who rescue them. It is time to take action both at the EU level and in member states to contain this hazard and ensure that our firefighters are no longer left alone on the frontline in their battle with cancer.


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