After more than two decades on the job, Manitoba firefighters say the world’s governing body for cancer research and prevention is finally acknowledging firefighters’ cancer risk.
The Professional Firefighters Association of Manitoba announced Thursday that the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is raising the highest risk classification to Class 1 from a 2B classification.
It is now accepted that this classification is the same cancer risk as tobacco smoke, asbestos and benzene.
“It’s a tremendously historic day for firefighters,” Alex Forrest, captain of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service and president of the Manitoba Professional Firefighters Association, told CTV News.
“This will be a critical moment for firefighting, not just in Canada, but around the world, because it will put more demands on governments around the world to address this danger of killing firefighters.”
Forrest said firefighters have always known their profession is dangerous — they are exposed to high levels of carcinogens while working to put out fires, which puts them at a higher risk of cancer.
He said this announcement makes the world agree.
“What this is going to do is make the world acknowledge that there is a problem with firefighters exposing themselves to carcinogenic agents, and you can’t solve that problem until you acknowledge there is a problem,” he said.
Forrest, a Canadian trustee of the International Union of Firefighters, has been advocating for this for 25 years. He said the classification would open the door to improving firefighter safety by increasing prevention and compensation and putting more money into firefighting technologies.
Manitoba led the world, says Forrest
“All Manitobans should be proud,” Forrest said, adding that he believes Thursday’s announcement was due to work done in Manitoba for the past 25 years. In 1997, Winnipeg said firefighters became the first firefighting organization to acknowledge their involvement in occupational cancer.
In 2002, Manitoba became the first province in Canada to have a firefighter’s diagnosis of brain and kidney cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia. In the years since then, the province has continued to grow a list of occupational cancers, which now includes 19 different cancers, Forrest said.
Other Canadian provinces, including Australia and New Zealand, have used Manitoba’s law as a model, he said.
“Every citizen of Manitoba and every firefighter in Manitoba should be very proud to lead the world when it comes to occupational cancer,” he said. “The work we’ve done in Manitoba will save thousands of lives around the world for decades to come.”
Forrest cited tobacco as an example of why it took so long for occupational cancers to be recognized globally.
“For 35 years, doctors knew there was a direct link between tobacco and cancer,” he said. “It took 35 years for science to accept that — 35 years to accept what many now consider common sense.”
Forrest said this classification is the first step, as more research and research needs to be done now. He said it would be at least a generation of firefighters before new technologies and barriers were developed to reduce the number of cancer firefighters.
“This is just the beginning in some ways,” he said.
CTV News has approached the IARC for more information.