File | Cancer | The invisible fight of firefighters (2 articles)

Firefighters save lives, often at risk to their own. And the fires that they help to extinguish are not the main threat facing them, but rather the cancers caused by the toxic products to which they are exposed at work. In Montreal alone, work-related cancers have claimed the lives of 77 firefighters over the past 15 years. This is 74 more than the number of firefighters who died in action for the same period.


In the fall of 2021, the deputy director of the Montreal Fire Safety Service (SIM), Pierre Clermont, began to struggle for words. “He had a little difficulty with his language. It was weird. We wondered if he was tired,” recalls his partner, Isabelle Lanthier.

It was after having an epileptic seizure that he learned the bad news. Pierre Clermont was diagnosed with brain cancer, stage 4 glioblastoma, at the age of 52.

Nearly three years later, the family agreed to tell us their story, in the presence of Mr. Clermont, who struggles to speak, his tumor being located in the language area of ​​the brain.

When asked what his daily life is like, Pierre Clermont manages to utter “Oh boy”, then lets his partner answer.

“He went from a firefighter who was very active, very manual, very sociable, to today, where he can no longer really speak, he has difficulty reading, he loses his balance. He spends his days lying down. If it wasn’t for me and his children, I think Pierre wouldn’t be here today. »

PHOTO DOMINICK GRAVEL, LA PRESSE ARCHIVES

In the last 15 years, 77 firefighters have died from cancer recognized by the CNESST as being linked to their job.

Nearly 200 firefighters affected

Pierre Clermont’s cancer was caused by his job as a firefighter, recognized the Commission for Standards, Equity, Health and Safety at Work (CNESST).

In the last 15 years, 77 firefighters have died from cancer recognized by the CNESST as being linked to their job, according to data obtained by The Press. Around a hundred other firefighters still alive have also seen their cancer recognized, according to data from the Montreal Firefighters’ Association.

“It’s huge,” exclaims Association President Chris Ross.

This number is underestimated, since it does not include firefighters who occupy a management position, as is the case of Pierre Clermont, and only takes into account those who have succeeded in being recognized by the CNESST.

In Quebec, 36 active, retired or deceased firefighters have received recognition of their cancer from the CNESST, according to figures from the Association of Professional Firefighters of Quebec (APPQ).

New materials at the heart of the problem

Our consumption habits expose firefighters more than ever to materials which, when burned, release a series of chemicals. “About thirty years ago, everything was made of wood. Now everything is plastic based and it’s highly toxic. It releases a range of chemicals known to cause cancer,” says Chris Ross.

Toxic products enter the body of firefighters in different ways, notably through the respiratory route. “Mask tightness tests are carried out on freshly shaved people who do not move or speak. But a firefighter in the middle of a fire often has to talk or shout, and he gets hot. Even when wearing a good mask, it is very difficult not to be exposed through the respiratory route,” explains professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Montreal (UdeM) France Labrèche.

And surprisingly, it’s not just smoke that’s to blame. Simple skin contact can also increase the risk of cancer in the long term.

“Firefighters today wear hoods, because we realized that soot contaminates the neck area, where the skin is thinner than that of the hands, for example,” says M.me Labrèche, who is interested in the risks of occupational cancer.

Some foams used to put out fires are also harmful to health, since they contain carcinogens, says the professor.

PHOTO HUGO-SEBASTIEN AUBERT, LA PRESSE ARCHIVES

The firefighter’s uniform has several layers of materials, some of which have coatings classified as carcinogenic.

The firefighters’ uniform, essential to protect them from fire, cuts and contaminants, among other things, has several layers of materials, some of which have coatings classified as carcinogenic.

Uniform wear can release harmful substances even before going to the fire and there is no real test for when the uniform should be changed.

France Labrèche, professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Montreal

In 2022, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) confirmed the risk of cancer to which firefighters are exposed in their work. Scientists from eight countries, including four from Canada, decided on the question.

PHOTO JOSIE DESMARAIS, LA PRESSE ARCHIVES

Today, firefighters are more aware of the risks, says the Montreal Fire Safety Service (SIM).

“A nose full of soot”

Previously, a firefighter’s reputation and experience were measured by how dirty their equipment was. “Many firefighters will tell you, 10 or 20 years ago, coming back from the fire all dirty was wonderful. It showed that you had worked hard,” says Professor France Labrèche.

Pierre was in the generation where firefighters protected themselves much less than today. I saw him often come home with a nose full of soot.

Isabelle Lanthier, spouse of Pierre Clermont

Today, firefighters are more aware of the risks, says the Montreal Fire Safety Service (SIM). Each firefighter now has two combat suits, which allows the second to be used in the event of contamination of the first. A study is also underway in Montreal concerning the reduction of the presence of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, nicknamed “eternal pollutants”, in work equipment.

Despite the improvements, there “still remains a lot to do” to better protect firefighters, believes Professor France Labrèche. In particular, new innovative techniques for cleaning uniforms could be developed, as could a rapid test to assess the tightness of masks at the scene of a fire.

Chris Ross points out that firefighters rarely have time to return to the station to change after a fire, often being called to respond elsewhere. “We are taking other interventions. So, we contaminate the vehicle. We are contaminating the residences from future interventions,” he said.

For its part, the SIM maintains that these are “rare exceptional cases” when firefighters are not temporarily taken out of service after a fire to carry out the necessary decontamination procedures.


reference: www.lapresse.ca

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