Former Bradford firefighter with cancer of the blood speaks out over job's links to diseases

Gerard Hollingworth. Credit: BBC Inside Out
Gerard Hollingworth. Credit: BBC Inside Out

A former Bradford firefighter has spoken out after professionals called for more protection amid fears that they may be more likely to die from cancer than the rest of the population.

Research shared with the BBC Inside Out programme shows that firefighters in the UK are twice as likely to die from cancer as the general population as they are being exposed to harmful toxins on their clothes and equipment which contain carcinogens.

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Gerard Hollingworth, who has cancer of the blood, worked as a firefighter in Bradford and as a fire instructor at the national training centre in Gloucestershire.

He says that, during the 90s, he would often burn diesel as part of a training exercise.

“When we’d go in there on the petrochemical unit, the smoke was billowing round us, big thick black smoke that you couldn’t see through in a million years," he said.

"Our necks would be covered in the unburnt products of the diesel.

"We’d then sit around having tea, cakes or whatever for our break, still in the same kit.

"We only had two kits at the Fire Training Centre and if you’re out there a couple of times a day, every day, it only gets collected once a week. So you’re going to end up with a kit that’s been worn at least ten times. Looking back, it’s now shortened my life.”

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Mr Hollingworth added: “We’ve got firefighters getting cancer on all watches and all stations and things need to be done about it. I’m angry after all this time that it’s going through congress in America, yet nothing seems to be happening in the UK.”

There are toxins and carcinogens in all fires, from a family barbecue at home to a blazing wall of fire in a house.

Scientists believe there are 16 major compounds in carcinogens where the toxic concentration may lead to cancer and it is all about the level of exposure, said the BBC.

Professor Anna Stec, Fire Chemistry and Toxicity Expert at the University of Central Lancashire, said: “If you take firefighters in their clothing, in a hot environment, they start sweating, they start dehydrating, body temperature increases, and dermal intake or absorption via the skin is automatically increasing. It’s kind of working like a sponge for all the fire toxins.

“So we’re looking at the type of clothing. We will heat it up, we will see if there are any contaminants within the deeper layers of the clothing, to see what effect and what danger and risk they will bring to firefighters.”

These contaminants are on a firefighter’s clothing and every firefighter must take responsibility for cleaning their kit after attending a fire. But there is no national directive or standard in the UK telling firefighters how their kit should be cleaned so it is down to individual brigades to decide that for themselves, said the BBC.

Stuart Elliott, crew manager at Durham Tees Valley Airport, said: “All of the carbon off the fuel, the rub off the tyres gets impregnated in to our kit so we’ve got to give ourselves a wipe-over until we get back to the station where we can do a deep clean on our kit in an industrial washer. However, sometimes we might get another call and then we haven’t got the luxury of getting the full decontamination of the kit and we’re going out on another incident.”

The UK’s Chief Fire Officer, Chris Davies, is the lead for health and safety at the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC).

He said: “There is a lot of scientific and medical information out there, but all of it, that I’m aware of, states that you can’t prove or disprove a link to cancer.

"What I do acknowledge is firefighters are contracting certain types of cancer above the population norm, I accept that and that is a concern.

"It does sound frustratingly slow, I will acknowledge that, but the assurances that I want to give is there is an incredible amount of work going on in the background to make this happen as quickly as possible. But, I do acknowledge that that’s not quick enough for some people.”