Charity raises funds for better masks for volunteer firefighters
Exclusive: Volunteer firefighters are battling blazes with face masks that don't properly protect them from dangerous and potentially cancer-causing fumes - and a charity is trying to fix the problem.
Hundreds of firefighters have already been issued with expensive new protective face masks after Rare Cancers Australia raised over $100,000 to provide 200 of the masks to firefighters in recent weeks.
It is asking Australians to donate more money so every RFS volunteer gets a better mask.
Rare Cancers director Kate Vines said the flimsy paper P2 masks provided to most firefighters did not stand up to all dangerous flames and they did not work when they got wet or were not properly fitted.
Long term exposure to bushfire smoke could cause lung cancer or acute lung problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
"Our fireys are not just facing smoke from the bush burning but a smorgasbord of toxic gases and chemicals erupting from burning sheds, houses and cars, they need better protection than a disposable paper mask," she said.
Rare Cancers said one of it missions was to try and prevent cancer and it hoped these better masks would do that.
The Country Fire Authority (CFA) in Victoria told News Corp it would not be accepting donations of the masks.
"CFA provides P2 Disposable Respirators to our frontline firefighters. When worn in accordance with fitting instructions and replaced regularly, P2-rated Disposable Respirators are effective in filtering out the fine particles in smoke," the authority said.
The CFA claimed P3 respirators required greater effort to breathe through the cartridge-type filters and could introduce difficulties achieving an ongoing facial seal due to sweat and facial hair.
"P3 respirators are not currently approved for use by CFA members and CFA will not be accepting any donations of the product until proper internal evaluations have been undertaken," the authority said.
Macquarie University Hospital specialist Professor Alvin Ing who is providing discounted services for patients suffering respiratory problems as a result of bushfire smoke praised the Rare Cancers initiative.
"P2 masks are talked about a lot but my concern is if you don't fit them properly or they are soiled or get wet they are not effective and they don't work well after a couple of hours because of condensation," he said.
He said frontline fire fighters were being exposed to the most toxic and carcinogenic gases and needed the best protection.
However not all specialists News Corp spoke to are convinced P3 masks are always appropriate for fire fighters.
Dr Keith Adam, a Senior Specialist Occupational Physician with Sonic HealthPlus and University Queensland, said while the Rare Cancers project was not a waste of money they needed to get advice on the science about which masks were appropriate where.
A well fitted P2 make should screen over 99 per cent of particles but full time paid firefighters used proper self contained breathing apparatus when fighting fires in buildings.
Associate Professor Yuming Guo from Monash University said there was not enough evidence in this area and more studies were needed to examine whether P2 or P3 were good enough for fire fighters.
Southern Highlands volunteer firefighter Brendon (surname withhold) said his brigade was the first to get the donated P3 face masks and he is very grateful.
"The P2 masks didn't cut it for me, I was still smelling smoke at the end of a shift and had sore eyes, a sore throat and was coughing," he told News Corp.
The P3 mask covered his whole face including his eyes and nose and as a result he was able to spend longer periods on the frontline fighting the fires instead of taking regular breaks.
Brendan has been out more than 25 times fighting fires this season and said, while the P3 mask was hot and sweaty for the first 20 minutes, it made it easier to breathe.
Ms Vine said requests from Volunteer Brigades were constantly arriving and Rare Cancers had already shipped to 20 brigades this week.
"The demand is huge and our main worry is raising enough funds to supply the volunteers," she said.
The full face P3 masks cost $500 each and the charity says it will ensure every dollar donated is used to buy face mask delivered to firefighters on the frontline within a matter of days.
To donate, go to www.rarecancers.org.au