Cancer risk a dirty secret for firey unit
FIREFIGHTER Michael Ryan believes years of working in the Hazmat unit gave him cancer — and he fears many of his workmates have the deadly disease lurking in their bodies as well.
Worse, with NSW about to become the only state that refuses to recognise that firefighters are at greater risk of developing cancer, he is con- cerned they won’t be given the help they need to fight it.
When deadly and poisonous substances are spilt, NSW Fire and Rescue’s Hazmat unit cleans them up.
But, when it came time to clean off and decontaminate that Hazmat equipment, Mr Ryan’s safety gear consisted of a pair of green rubber gloves.
Back in the 1980s, the Hazmat unit’s converted factory in Waterloo got so hot they would work in shorts and singlet. Gas masks were offered but considered too uncomfortable to wear.
Mr Ryan (pictured) said it was distressing to him now that he knew the different ways toxins could have entered his body.
“There’s inhalation, inges- tion and there’s injection — injection is where toxins gets into the pores of your skin,” he said. “So we were breathing it, getting it injected into our skin, the only thing we weren’t doing was eating it.”
A year on from a prostate cancer diagnosis and lifesaving surgery, the former chief superintendent is calling on other firefighters, past and present, to get themselves checked. “I can’t imagine how many are walking around with prostate cancer that don’t even know it,” he said.
While every other state recognises that firefighters face significantly higher risks of cancer, NSW refuses to do so. Victoria is reviewing legislation that will bring it into line with the West Australian, South Australian, Tasmanian, Northern Territory and Queensland governments, who have all passed laws in the past decade to cover firefighters being at greater risk of 12 different types of cancer.
In late-2016, the Queensland government even began offering firefighters free blood tests to examine if they had toxins in their system.
The Defence Department is also facing a $200 million Federal Court case after more than 450 residents from Oakey in Queensland claimed they had been exposed to toxic chemicals, after firefighting foams used at the Army Aviation Centre leached into groundwater.
It is these and other chemicals Mr Ryan is concerned about.
“We would open these bags that had contaminated equipment in them and it was our job to clean it,” he said.
“We had these big stainless-steel tubs but at the time there was no ventilation to be able to draw these fumes away from this room that we were in. It was stinking hot in these rooms and so you would just take the gas mask off because you just had no movement and you knew it was hindering what you were supposed to be doing.”
However Fire and Rescue NSW insisted that Australian firefighters did not have the
same high levels of cancers as their overseas counterparts.
A FRNSW spokesman said the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council commissioned a study into cancer and causes of death in paid and volunteer firefighters that contradicted overseas studies.
The spokesman did not address questions about NSW being the only state not to acknowledge a higher cancer risk for firefighters. He did say: “Our Hazmat section has always operated in line with the best practice and workplace standards of the time.”
Emergency Services Minister Troy Grant’s office referred The Sunday Tele- graph to Finance, Services and Property Minister Victor Dominello, who referred us to the State Insurance Regulatory Authority.
A spokesman said: “SIRA has recently met with the Rural Fire Service Association and the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union and is considering the issues they have raised. In the meantime, firefighters are fully protected by the NSW workers’ compensation scheme.”
Officers of the NSW Fire Brigade’s Breathing Apparatus Hazmat Unit in Allen St, Waterloo, cleaning their equipment and protective gear in 1984-’85.