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There can now be absolutely no room for controversy or complacency with the World Health Organisation determining firefighting is Group 1A carcinogenic to humans – the highest rating of carcinogenic status. 

The World Health Organisation International Agency for Research on Cancer first studied firefighting in 2009 where it was determined the occupational exposure as a firefighter was possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B). This month, 2022 IARC undertook a second monograph which resulted in the determination to upgrade the occupational of firefighting to carcinogenic to humans (Group 1A).  

The IARC Monographs identify environmental factors that are carcinogenic hazards to humans. These include chemicals, complex mixtures, occupational exposures, physical agents, biological agents, and lifestyle factors. National health agencies can use this information as scientific support for their actions to prevent exposure to potential carcinogens. The Group 1A classification puts the occupation of firefighting in the same toxic category as carcinogenic agents such as arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde.

Canadian Trustee for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and Winnipeg Firefighters Union President Alex Forrest was granted observer status for the IARC committee that reconsidered firefighting in June. Alex is a firefighter, a lawyer and an international firefighters’ occupational cancer expert and he was instrumental in IARC re-assessing firefighting and his knowledge of the research and understanding of firefighter cancer would have been invaluable. Every firefighter is forever indebted to Alex for his unwavering commitment to having firefighters’ occupational cancer recognised. Alex continues to be a huge supporter of the NZPFU campaign for presumptive legislation to recognise New Zealand firefighters’ occupational cancer.

A wealth of credible and internationally accepted research over the past few decades has demonstrated the nexus between the incidence of specific cancers and firefighting. This IARC classification leaves no room for doubt or debate.

While we recognise the significance of the IARC determination, the reality for firefighters is sobering.

Cancer is the greatest killer of firefighters globally. Despite improved uniform and equipment, decontamination procedures and firefighting protocols the rates of cancer among firefighters has not abated and that is due to the increased toxicity of the fires attending. A house fire can be just as deadly with the toxins in plastics and human-made building materials and every-day furnishings and home appliances.

Firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation but it is the insidious cocktail of toxins that are the unseen and often unrecognised danger.

Firefighters should not have to go through a time consuming and costly legal battle to get ACC cover as they would for any other work-related injury.  The NZPFU is currently assisting 8 firefighters with claims including taking reviews after FENZ refused occupational cancer claims. We have assisted many others over the years and some are still battling for ACC cover.

We need presumptive legislation to recognise firefighters’ occupational cancer now!

New Zealand firefighters deserve the same protections their Australian and Canadian and American counterparts have – presumptive legislation to remove the litigious battle for ACC cover for the cancer that was caused through their service protecting the community.

We also have a claim requiring FENZ to recognise firefighter’s occupational cancer in the bargaining. So far FENZ is refusing to acknowledge occupational cancer in the collective agreement.

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