Can­cer risk a dirty se­cret for firey unit

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS - RE­BECCA PAR­ISH

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.

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