Wednesday, 8 Feb 2023

Grenfell firefighter’s safety message over blaze’s cancer legacy

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Firefighters at risk of developing deadly cancers during the course of their jobs are being let down by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government, one of the first responders at the Grenfell Tower blaze six years ago has said. Dave Badillo believes he and his colleagues have only recently started to become aware of the risks posed to them as a result of inhaling toxic chemicals – and emphasised the importance of ensuring all of them are monitored regularly for signs of illness.

Mr Badillo, 49, was speaking after new research by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) indicating firefighters are four times more likely to get cancer compared with others.

In addition, a separate investigation published earlier this month revealed 12 firefighters who helped tackle the tower block fire on June 14, 2017, have since been diagnosed with a range of terminal cancers.

Mr Badillo, who has been a member of London Fire Brigade for 25 years, was one of the first on the scene when the deadly blaze was first called in.

He told the Express: “My story’s been told 1000 times, I’m sure. So on the night we were obviously first in attendance and when we got there, we were called to a fire in the kitchen and obviously that turned into the catastrophic fire that was.

“It wasn’t clear straight away it was going to be a catastrophe. When we first got there it was just wispy smoke coming out of one window.

“It was our job to set up the bridgehead and to get the first BA crews into the fire in the flat to try and put out the fire.

“Once I’d done that, I came downstairs and met a young girl whose sister was in the flat on the 20th floor and I went up to try and find her but I couldn’t.”

As has been well documented, the fire escalated over the course of the next few hours, and in total 72 people lost their lives in what remains the worst residential tower block blaze since World War 2.

Mr Badillo said at the time he and his colleagues were largely unaware of the risks which toxic chemicals posed to their health.

He explained: “That wasn’t on the agenda at that time. Decontamination is a new thing that’s been brought about by the DECON campaign from the FBU.

“Before that, it wasn’t really taken seriously about decon. It was sort of a badge of honour if you had a kit and a dirty helmet.

“We weren’t ever educated on the risks of breathing all these toxic fumes and all the different contaminants.

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“We weren’t told that if your temperature rises, you are four times as likely to breathe in or inhale or digest these contaminants.”

Upon joining the fire service, he had been under no illusions about the risks of running into burning buildings – but had not realised that it was “the least of my worries”, Mr Badillo emphasised.

He said: “They didn’t tell us we needed to shower straight away, they didn’t tell us we needed to protect ourselves after the fire – we wore the same kit the next day.

“We’d go to bed covered in soot and stuff like that. To be honest, it’s probably too late for me and a lot of people like me but for the new people coming in, we need to promote this, we need to get the fire services and the government to take this seriously.

“This is incredibly worrying, the amount of firefighters that are dying because they’re not being monitored healthwise.”

Consequently, cancers were being caught late and people were dying, Mr Badillo warned, a situation he described as “scandalous”.

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He continued: “I started out at Chiswick Fire Station, then I moved to North Kensington a couple of years later.

“When I moved there they said we’ve got this image of being a cancer station.

“Back then people were saying it was because we’ve got these telephone masts in the yard.

“People were dying of cancer on my station and nobody thought to say, ‘oh, it’s because of all the contaminants, the smoke and all the rest of it we’re breathing in before, during and after the fire’.

“And we weren’t protected in the slightest. I don’t know how long this has been known but a lot longer than the process it’s taken for the LSE to get others to take this seriously and start helping firefighters.”

Mr Badillo is currently healthy and is now being screened on a regular basis, but remains understandably concerned by the revelation that a dozen Grenfell firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer, published in the Mirror earlier this month – although he stressed he does not know any of them.

He said: ”All I can do is hopefully get the protection from the fire service and fund the government to bring forward this health monitoring this regular needed health monitoring which will spot these diseases early.

“Because firefighters are dying now because they’re not being monitored. So they’d be in diagnosed way too late for anyone to help But we need help and we need it now.

“I love the job – my mum reckons I’ve been wanting to be a firefighter since I was five years old.

“But what I wouId say to Rishi Sunak is just say firefighters put their lives on the line every day to save others only, only to be diagnosed with these illnesses and we desperately need you and your government to take it seriously and give us the health monitoring we need and I think that we deserve so the alarming rate of firefighters getting ill doesn’t continue.”

Nor was his concern limited to members of London Fire Brigade, Mr Badillo said.

He added: “Before I was a firefighter I worked at the sports centre next to Grenville tower and my boxing club was at the bottom of the tower so I have close connections to the community.

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“So not only am I worried about the risks to firefighters, but also our community.

“Maybe they need to monitor the health of all the residents, all the survivors of the tower or the bereaved that came to look for their loved ones on the night. They all breathed in a lot of those fumes as well. They need protection as well and they need help.”

The Mirror’s research, published on January 13, suggests the 12 victims, some of whom are only in their 40s, have illnesses linked to the high levels of exposure to contaminants during the massive rescue operation. The majority diagnosed were suffering from digestive cancers and leukaemia, with ongoing concern that more cases may emerge.

A study published days earlier by the FBU further indicates firefighters are significantly more likely to die from cancer, heart attack, stroke and several other diseases, with 4.1 percent of those surveyed having had a cancer diagnosis.

Instances of cancer among firefighters between the ages of 35 and 39 are up to 323 percent higher than in the general population in the same age category.

Riccardo la Torre, Fire Brigades Union national official said: “We already knew that fire contaminants were very likely causing cancer and other diseases in firefighters.

“Now, we have evidence that cements that belief and also shows that contaminants can impact their mental health.”

He continued: “No firefighter should suffer unnecessarily and there is much more that fire services can be doing to reduce exposure to fire contaminants.

“We demand to see more action on prevention, health monitoring, and facilities and contracts for proper PPE and workwear cleaning.

“Ministers and Fire bosses can no longer bury their heads in the sand on this life and death matter. It is of absolute urgency that they act and this research only reinforces that point.”

The National Fire Chiefs Council said: “The safety and well-being of the public and firefighters is the number one priority for fire and rescue services.

“The role of a firefighter is clearly one which can be dangerous and brings substantial occupational risk for the protection of those in need.

“It is recognised that whilst firefighters carry out their role, they are exposed to contaminants.

“It is acknowledged that incidences of some cancers in firefighters are higher than the average.

“The National Fire Chiefs Council is committed to ensuring the ongoing, improved safety of all firefighters, making full use of the evidence and knowledge available.”

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