'Tremendously historic day': Firefighter says Manitoba led the world to acknowledge cancer risk

After working for more than two decades, Manitoba firefighters say the world's governing body on cancer research and prevention is finally acknowledging firefighters' cancer risk.

The Manitoba Professional Firefighters Association announced on Thursday that the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is raising the cancer risk classification for firefighting from a 2B classification to the highest danger classification as Class 1.

This classification means firefighting is now acknowledged as a cancer risk equal to tobacco smoke, asbestos and benzene.

"This is a tremendously historic day for firefighters," Alex Forrest, a captain with Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service and president of the Manitoba Professional Firefighters Association, told CTV News.

"It is going to be a watershed moment for firefighting not only in Canada, but around the world because this will create a greater need for governments around the world to look at this danger that is killing firefighters."

Forrest said firefighters have always known their occupation is dangerous – they are exposed to high levels of carcinogens when working to extinguish fires, which puts them at a much greater risk of cancer.

He said this announcement forces the world to acknowledge that.

"What this is going to do is it finally makes the world admit that there is a problem for firefighters exposing themselves to cancer-causing agents and you can't solve that problem until you admit there's a problem," he said.

Forrest, who is also the Canadian trustee for the International Association of Firefighters, has been advocating for this for 25 years. He said this classification will open the door to improve safety for firefighters by increasing prevention and compensation and putting more money into firefighting technologies.

MANITOBA LED THE WORLD, FORREST SAYS

"All Manitobans should be proud," said Forrest, adding he believes Thursday's announcement is due to the work done in Manitoba over the past 25 years. He said back in 1997, Winnipeg firefighters became the first firefighting organization to acknowledge the connection to occupational cancer.

In 2002, Manitoba became the first province in Canada to have a firefighter presumption including brain and kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and leukemia. In the years since, the province has continued to grow the list of occupational cancers, which now includes 19 different cancers, Forrest said.

He said other provinces in Canada and countries including Australia and New Zealand have used Manitoba's legislation as a model.

"Every citizen of Manitoba and the firefighters in Manitoba should be extremely proud that they've led the world when it comes to occupational cancer," he said. "The work that we have done in Manitoba will likely save thousands of lives around the world in the coming decades."

As for why it took so long for occupational cancers to be acknowledged on a global scale – Forrest pointed to tobacco as an example.

"For 35 years, doctors knew that tobacco had a direct correlation with cancer," he said. "It took 35 years for science to acknowledge that – 35 years to acknowledge what many people now see as common sense."

Forrest said this classification is just the first step as now more studies and research will need to be done. He said it will likely be at least a generation of firefighters before new technologies and prevention can be developed to decrease the level of cancer firefighters are exposed to.

"This is just the beginning in some ways," he said.

CTV News has reached out to IARC for more information.