Tommy Kjaer, Denmark Firefighters Cancer Organisation, underlined the dangers faced by firefighters every day to protect the public and save fire victims.
He emphasised that today’s fires are faster growing, and emit more toxic fumes, because of increasing use of polymers in buildings (insulation, structures such as windows and doors, interior decoration). He considers that the number of particles emitted can increase by up to twelve times when synthetic materials are involved in fires. A fire used to take 15 minutes to reach flashover 30 years ago, but today only three minutes. Foam insulation panels can burn behind covering materials, emitting black smoke because of lack of air, and difficult to extinguish. Firefighters face not only the immediate dangers of fires, but also long term risks including heart disease, brain damage (related to carbon monoxide exposure), psychological risks and cancer. Carcinogens to which firefighters are exposed in smoke and soot include: benzene, formaldehyde, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), dioxins. Firefighters are also exposed to asbestos, arsenic, cobalt, chromium and lead. Carbon monoxide (CO) gives symptoms similar to a stroke, and is often wrongly diagnosed. Equipment cleaning procedures need to be improved to reduce firefighter exposure, including cleaning all gear and equipment which returns to fire stations, and clean / non-clean areas in stations. Particles of < 1 µm are not visible to the eye but are dangerous for the long term health, so it is necessary to wear proper respiratory protection in all phases in fire interventions. IARC classifies smoke as a group 1 carcinogen, but firefighting only as a class 2B occupation. The Firefighters Cancer Organisation states that fire fighters are not treated fairly by the workers compensation boards and wants to see cancer recognised as an occupational disease for firefighters and reclassified to IARC class 2A.