Firefighter wants answers

IN THE LINE OF FIRE: Bladder cancer survivor Joe Ryan admits he was exposed to many dangerous chemicals during his firefighting career, but the “common denominator” was always the toxic AFFF foam. Picture: Jonathan CarrollA RETIRED firefighter has joined the call for an investigation into rates of cancer among NSW firefighters exposed to toxic foam.
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JoeRyan was just 33 when he found out he hadbladder cancer, a diagnosiswhich threatened to derail his fledgling career.

He had spent three years stationed at a “foam” fire station in Botany, where he was regularly soaked inAqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF).

“You would water down the station floor, pour this stuff all over it,” Mr Ryan said. “You got it all over you.”

Until news of the contamination around the Williamtown RAAF Base broke, Mr Ryan hadconsidered the cancer one of life’s curveballs. But revelationsthe firefighting foam contained a chemicallinked with bladder cancer – perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) – changed everything.

“All I want to know is, did the foam cause the bladder cancer?” Mr Ryan said.”What is the fire brigade going to do about it? What did 3M [the manufacturer] know?”

Mr Ryan, who went on to spend two decades as an inspector with the brigade, originally moved to Sydney to pursue a career in accounting.But he changed course when he realised his firefighter flatmates were spending their days off meeting women atBondi Beach, he remembers with a wry smile.

He didn’t think much of it when he noticed a “minute” trace of blood in his urine but within a week the problem had grown much worse.

“I went to see a urologist and the next day I was on the operating table,” he said.

Because the stage four tumour was “hanging” some of the bladdercould be saved. However Mr Ryanthen had to endure four rounds of chemotherapy.

“You go through sheer hell for three or four months after that,” he said. “Every time you urinate, it’s like passing razor blades.”

Mr Ryan, now 67 and living inFloraville, has had several lower grade tumours removed over the years.

“It’s affected my whole life, but it’s also affected my pocket,” he said. “Doctors don’t come cheap.”

He has no family history of bladder cancer and was “as fit as you could be” when he was diagnosed.

A landmark report by the US EPA noted an “association” between PFOS exposure and bladder cancer. Part of that finding was based on a study which found workers at 3M’sAlabama plantwith a high exposurewere 13 times more likely to die of bladder cancer than the general population.

​TheNewcastle Heraldpreviously revealed at least 10 firefighters who worked at Newcastle Fire Station in Cooks Hill have suffered from health conditionsthat have been linked with exposure to the chemicals, including four who have been diagnosed with bladder cancer.

Mr Ryan said any investigation should focus on foam fire stations, which were often based close to heavy industry, airports and oil refineries.

He said workers at those stations would be splashed with the foam as they transferred it from drums into the fire engine’stanks. They would also use it during training drills andto wash petrol off the roadway at car accidents.

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