An update was recently released to a groundbreaking study by scientist Dr Susan Shaw, providing new evidence that brominated flame retardants may carry higher cancer risks and more health issues than previously thought.

Firefighters in the US took part in the study, which aimed to determine the level of these pollutants in their bodies from exposure to fires.

During fires, significant quantities of cancer-causing dioxins and furans are produced when materials containing brominated and chlorinated substrate are combusted. As firefighters are known to have high rates of cancer, the study focuses on the effects of exposure to these compounds while firefighting.

 “Our study provides clear evidence that firefighters are exposed to high levels of cancer-causing chemicals including brominated flame retardants and their combustion by-products – dioxins and furans – that are formed during fires by the burning of flame-retarded foam furniture, televisions, computers and building materials,” Shaw said.

“Firefighters have much higher levels and different patterns of these chemicals in their blood than the general population. There is no doubt that firefighting is a dangerous occupation. What we have shown here points to the possible link between firefighting and cancer.”

Extensive research has previously been conducted into chlorinated dioxins and furans, but this is the first study that examines bromines in depth. Shaw said the results call for increased regulations to protect not only firefighters but also ordinary citizens.

This risk is not localised to the US; it also affects firefighters in Australia and around the world. Andrew Whiddon, a firefighter in NSW, spoke of the need for safer building material use in Australia.

“Cancer is a real risk to firefighters but it is one that could be avoided by removing building materials that contain furans and dioxins,” he said. “Health and safety is a key focus in the workplace and, as firefighters are risking their own lives for others, it seems only fair that their health and safety is looked after, by preventing extra risks that could be avoided.”

The International Chemical Secretariat also chimed in on the hazards of brominated and chlorinated substrate.

“Bromine- and chlorine-based compounds are used ubiquitously in the production of today’s modern electronic products as flame retardants, solvents, dyes, adhesives, and plastic resins. The largest uses of compounds containing bromine and chlorine are brominated flame retardants (BFRs), added to plastics to inhibit fire, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, an inherently flame-resistant plastic resin,” the Secretariat said.

“It is estimated that hundreds of different chlorinated and brominated flame retardants are currently on the market. To satisfy fire safety standards, very high concentrations – generally 5% to 30% – of BFRs must be used in plastics to effectively impede fires.

“The predominant use of chlorine in electronics has been in PVC plastics. Most internal and external cables use PVC to insulate copper wires. In order to make PVC soft and flexible additives such as phthalates are used. Many phthalates are or may be harmful to reproduction.”

The Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) recently called for feedback on a review of its material credits section. Let’s hope this leads to some positive news about the phasing out of materials that cause damage to the health of our firefighters and also to the public.