Firefighters battling wildfires in Canada risk their lives to ensure communities stay safe, but according to an expert, they're not being protected themselves.

The unpredictable nature of fire is a risk firefighters face on the job, but so is breathing in toxic fumes, a factor the public may be less likely to consider.

Neil McMillian, director of science and research for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), told CTV's Your Morning that these firefighters are exposed to a great level of smoke, and that this exposure can have an impact that lasts well beyond the end of the current wildfire season.

One of the issues, he said, is a lack of access to proper protections.

"Our members are still relying on technology that really is not dissimilar of what you would see cowboys use in bygone eras keeping dust from their face, these are bandanas, in essence, providing no real respiratory protection for them," he said.

As for why this is, the remote nature of wildfires is part of the problem, he said, because the equipment needs to be easy to transport and to be wearable and functional over long periods of time.

"Our members are deployed not only for 10-hour, 12-hour, 24-hour shifts, but days on end, in some of these really harsh conditions," McMillian said. "Having something that can be fit-tested to be used under those circumstances, be trucked in and out of these remote locations is difficult to develop, and also to be certified through regulatory bodies."

A study by researchers at B.C.'s University of Fraser Valley in 2020 found that cancer is the leading cause of death among all firefighters in Canada.

Researchers found cancer contributed to 85 per cent, 88 per cent and 90 per cent of the fatalities, based on three separate cohorts involved in the study.

"Many of those occupational cancers are related to the fire effluent and smoke that firefighters breathe in regularly," McMillian said.

Wildfire smoke is a mix of gas particles and water vapour, the Health Canada website reads. Some pollutants include sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, fine particulate matter and ozone.

When firefighters are directly breathing in the smoke over long periods of time, this has adverse impacts on their health.

There are some protections given to firefighters including N95 masks and air purifiers, but McMillian says more need to be done. Testing is underway for further equipment that can withstand the harsh realities of fighting wildfires.

"It's not just a firefighter issue, this is a community issue, it's a national issue," McMillian said.


To watch the full interview click the video at the top of this article.   

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