Cancer risk occupational hazard for firefighters
Firefighters were on their feet in a flash to help a boy who fell asleep and crashed out of his chair at the Merritt Civic Centre on Monday night.
“If you had to collapse, what better place than a room full of firefighters?” the boy’s father, presenter Dr. Kenneth Kunz, joked when it was determined he wasn’t hurt.
It turned out to be a brief bit of comic relief during Kunz’s two-hour lecture on the link between firefighting and cancer. About 40 people attended the lecture put on by the Merritt Fire Rescue Department.
Kunz, a veteran oncologist, said his mission is to raise awareness of the cancer risks firefighters face as an occupational hazard through their increased exposure to carcinogens.
“Firefighters have an increased risk of getting cancer just by trying to earn a living by protecting the public,” he said. “Historically, firefighters have been exposed to burning natural materials, but everything today is made out of synthetic materials: chemicals, paints, solvents, adhesives. Even diesel exhaust from fire trucks is very carcinogenic.”
He said those carcinogens can be absorbed in the body through the skin, by accidental ingestion, or breathed into the lungs.
Kunz said a firefighter friend in Nelson was told he smelled like a smoked ham for over a week following a large fire.
“If it’s on you, it’s in you,” he said. “If you get into the fire truck and it smells like smoke and soot, and you smell like smoke and soot, and the bunker gear smells like smoke and soot, that’s where the carcinogens are coming from. It’s after the fire, from soiled turnout gear, the truck, even in the fire hall, that we see fatal cancers in first responders.”
Kunz began presenting on the link between firefighting and cancer when a firefighter approached him on the topic after a free cancer seminar in Nelson.
The 30-year veteran cancer doctor said he found the need to raise awareness once he began researching and reflecting on his own first responder patients. Since then, Kunz has presented the talk in about 30 communities throughout B.C.
He said the primary goal is to raise awareness, with the ultimate goal of reducing the number of Canadians who die from cancer.
Manitoba implemented Canada’s first presumptive cancer amendments to its Workers Compensation Act in 2002, a lead followed by B.C. in 2005. B.C.’s presumptive cancer laws cover 10 types of cance, but stipulate a period of employment for coverage, ranging from five years for lukemia coverage to 25 years for esophageal cancer. The 10 types of cancer covered do not include any female-specific strains of the disease. Kunz said the amendments to the act are a start, but not enough.
“You have to make cancer presumption laws uniform across the country, and probably across the entire world,” he said. “They should be more comprehensive, and expand the range of cancers that are covered. The cumulative periods seem unrealistic to me as a cancer doctor, because I’ve never known cancer to obey a cumulative period. And what about female cancers?
“We need to do a better job of protecting firefighters and helping firefighters protect themselves,” he said.