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Firefighters hoping national study will prove cancer link

The World Today - Friday, 5 June , 2009 12:33:00

Reporter: David Mark

PETER CAVE: Firefighters are hoping that a national study will prove that there is a correlation
between their profession and higher than average rates of cancer.

A cluster of cancers at a fire station in Far North Queensland prompted a state-wide study that was
tabled in the Queensland Parliament yesterday.

That study found no evidence of higher cancer rates for firefighters but the state secretary of
their union believes a national study will confirm overseas evidence that firefighters are much
more prone to cancer.

David Mark reports.

DAVID MARK: It was a cluster of cancers at the Atherton fire station in Queensland that raised
concerns among firefighters around that State.

Mark Walker, the state secretary of the United Firefighters' Union in Queensland explains.

MARK WALKER: Three firefighters were diagnosed with brain cancers, or brain tumours. One of those
was unfortunately fatal.

DAVID MARK: An investigation couldn't find any definitive causes for the cancers.

A subsequent study by Monash University researchers into all Queensland firefighters was tabled in
the State Parliament yesterday.

While the study showed that there was no significant increase in the rates of cancers among
firefighters compared to the general population, Mark Walker believes the correlation does exist.

MARK WALKER: What we do say is it was a relatively small sample size of Queensland firefighters
over a relatively short period of time. Now the data from overseas shows that firefighters do face
a significantly increased risk of various types of cancers. So we treat this finding somewhat with
a bit of caution.

DAVID MARK: Dr Deborah Glass, a senior research fellow at Monash University was the lead author of
the Queensland study. She acknowledges the sample was limited.

DEBORAH GLASS: It is a very small study and it hasn't been followed for a very long time. I mean,
we were looking at firefighters employed between 95 and 2006, which were the records that were
available.

And of course, though the average age at the end of that follow-up for men was sort of 43, 44, and
you wouldn't expect men in their 30s to have a very high cancer rate - that tends to be something
that happens in older people.

DAVID MARK: Mark Walker says studies in the United States show firefighters are three times more
likely to get cancer than other men.

MARK WALKER: Just the general risk of firefighting; the daily exposure of firefighters to
carcinogens at incidents. They've demonstrated a higher risk or a higher level of incidence of
cancers overseas. That's come about because of a large statistical investigation group. There's
290,000 career firefighters in the United States so it's actually a valid figure to be able to draw
an investigation from, rather than a relatively small sample group in Queensland.

DAVID MARK: Dr Deborah Glass:

DEBORAH GLASS: There's pretty good evidence that testicular cancer, prostate cancer and
non-Hodgkin's lymphoma are associated with working as a firefighter, and there have been several
studies which have shown that which is why the evidence is sort of regarded as good.

DAVID MARK: Now Dr Glass is looking into whether a national study of firefighters is feasible.

The Firefighters' Union's Mark Walker believes a national study will show Australian firefighters
are more susceptible to cancers.

MARK WALKER: What we're seeking ultimately is a change in legislation so that when a firefighter is
diagnosed with a cancer, it is automatically recognised as being work related.

DAVID MARK: That means firefighters won't have to fight protracted legal battles at the same time
as they're fighting their illnesses.

Dr Deborah Glass will produce a feasibility report into a possible national study at the end of
this month.

PETER CAVE: David Mark reporting.