According to Action on Asbestos, firefighters are two and a half times more likely than other people are to develop mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer. It is an invariably fatal cancer that results from exposure to asbestos fibres. It causes horrific suffering and loss, not only for those affected but for family and friends who witness someone close to them suffer and die.
As we have heard, asbestos-related illnesses are not the only risk that firefighters face as a result of their occupation. Firefighters are four times more likely to get cancer than the average working person and might get it up to 15 years earlier.
That has been directly linked to contact with toxic contaminants that are released during fires. It is unacceptable for that to go unaddressed any longer.
The World Health Organization declared occupational exposure experienced by firefighters to be carcinogenic and a preventable cause of human cancer, but there is, as yet, no policy of regular checks or screening for cancer throughout their careers. That is totally unacceptable.
The issue is not confined to Scotland. We heard recently that a dozen firefighters who tackled the blaze at Grenfell tower in June 2017 have since been diagnosed with terminal cancer. There is no doubt that firefighters are exposed to life-threatening contaminants as a result of their occupation.
A number of studies have focused on the risks and dangers associated with contaminated personal protective equipment and workplaces and on the bringing of contaminants back to fire stations on clothing, PPE and vehicles. Those studies have shown that there is a high, but preventable, risk of exposure to carcinogenic and toxic substances in fire stations.
Firefighters working in rural Scotland have expressed the fear that they are at increased risk of cancer because so many of our rural fire stations are without running water. Their inability to shower quickly after returning from fires means that they cannot properly clean cancer-causing chemicals that are released during fires from their clothes and skin. I am sure that the minister will address that concern.
A report last year stated that 11 Scottish fire stations in remote countryside areas had inadequate facilities, which is a matter that the FBU has repeatedly raised.
Professor Stec’s study and the research that was commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union absolutely confirm what firefighters and their representatives in Scotland have been saying for years: unfortunately, firefighting causes cancer.
Worryingly, it seems that the industrial injuries disablement and benefit advisory group, which was set up by the Government in 2016, has not met for some time. It is important that we get that up and running.
Having previously been involved in the fight against asbestos-related cancers in other industries, I know that it is important to look for and establish causal links. When there is an accepted causal link—sadly, that is the case for some workers—workers need to challenge their employers and fight for compensation for being put in those conditions.
We should make it easy for firefighters to be able to do that, as we have done for other professions, such as shipyard workers, under the mesothelioma compensation scheme. It is a difficult issue to raise, but it is one that we must address.