Firefighters and exposures to health-related risks

  Posted on 25th March 2019 by Nick Cottrell in UFBA blog, UFBA News

Presumptive Legislation

A hot topic at the moment in the press is the announcement by the firefighters union (NZPFU) around it’s campaigning for a change to legislation to get a number of specific cancers covered by ACC as workplace related illnesses for firefighters. While this presumptive legislation issue is a highly emotive issue, and one we can all feel strongly about, we must ensure due diligence that any actions are based upon facts.

This campaign follows similar campaigns in North America and Australia. However, while this may have drawn the limelight in the media, this is not a new issue to our sector.

In 2011, the Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC) commissioned Monash University to carry out a national retrospective study of firefighters mortality and cancer incidence known as the Australian Firefighters’ Health Study.  This 3 year study was largely prompted by similar work that was carried out in North America.

From the available data it was found that Australian Firefighters did not have the same elevated incidence of all the identified cancers that were found in previous overseas studies.  The study did find that paid firefighters were at a greater risk of melanoma and prostate cancer. While it was found that volunteer firefighters, overall, did not appear to have elevated levels of cancer as a result of firefighting duties. There was however some evidence that male volunteer firefighters who had served for more than 20 year had an elevated risk of prostate cancer. The report noted the need to complete further analysis of volunteers who attend very high numbers of fires. A copy of the complete Monash Report can be found here.

We support any pre-emptive legislation that supports the interests of all firefighters whether career or volunteer.

Firefighting foam concentrates

On a separate issue – and one which again we have been involved in a working group on – is the use of PFAS containing substances.  There has been a lot of discussion and scientific studies conducted by FENZ and supported by the UFBA and other agencies for some time, to fully understand how this relates to the environment, equipment and practices in New Zealand firefighting.

PFAS – including PFOA and PFOS, are manmade chemicals found in some older B-type foam concentrates. These tiny molecules do not break down easily in the body. Historic use could have presented a risk if ingested through contaminated food and drink. Also higher concentrations of use around military bases has resulted in a study into local environmental contamination, which we are all still working our way through. It should be noted that those Class B concentrates used to produce medium and high expansion foams are quite different from protein foams. They are synthetic detergent foam concentrates much like a very strong dishwashing liquid.

FENZ have had analysis done on existing stocks of B-type foams and none contain PFOS or PFOA compounds however Class B Foam does contain other types of substance from the PFAS group. 95% of foam concentrate used is a Type A, which is essentially a type of detergent with no environmental risks and Type B is mostly used on flammable liquid fires eg petrol.

FENZ has taken advice from Ministry of Health, however there is no indicators on harmful levels of PFAS, which can enter the body through many other means including food. PFAS can be ingested from food cooked on a Teflon coated frying pan for example.  Quite simply, without a baseline it’s impossible to tell what levels of exposure pose any risk and what doesn’t.

For assurance FENZ offers a comprehensive health screening programme called Hauora with regular health checks. This is available to all career and volunteer personnel. We are also working with FENZ on the potential to offer blood tests to FENZ personnel.

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