City Council Debates Updating Fire Code to Reduce Carcinogenic Chemicals

The hearing addressed high rates of cancer within the Boston Fire Department.

In this photo released by the Boston Fire Department via Twitter, firefighters battle a multi-alarm fire at a four-story brownstone in the Back Bay neighborhood near the Charles River Wednesday, March 26, 2014 in Boston. (AP Photo/Boston Fire Department)

Photo via AP/Boston Fire Department

Last month, a short film presented the sobering fact that Boston firefighters are 2.5 times more likely to develop cancer than the general public. Today, the City Council Committee on Public Safety held a hearing about whether changing part of Boston’s fire code could help reverse that trend.

The Boston Fire Prevention Code currently requires schools, hospitals, and other institutions to add flame-retardant chemicals to upholstered furniture—even though those chemicals have been shown to cause health problems including cancer, hormone disruption, and impaired brain development. Notably, Boston is the only jurisdiction in the country with such strict code; no others require such flame retardants in buildings equipped with automatic sprinklers.

Many public health officials are now calling for an end to that stipulation. In a statement, Rich Paris, president of Boston Firefighters Local 718 and district vice president for the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, spoke in favor of revising the policy:

“Cancer in the fire service is the largest health‐related issue facing the firefighting profession,” he said. “Every three weeks a new cancer is diagnosed in the Boston Fire Department. This is unacceptable and must be addressed. This hearing is a positive step forward in addressing exposure to the harmful effects of toxic flame retardants for firefighters and the residents of Boston.”

At the hearing, however, Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn took a more cautious stance. “Boston has the lowest fire fatality per capita of compared-size cities. This is no accident,” he said. “Whether the standards regulating upholstered furniture in public spaces in Boston should be relaxed requires a more thorough and comprehensive analysis of many factors.”

Finn acknowledged that cancer in the department is a critical problem, but maintained that changing fire code is not a black-and-white issue, adding that “automatic sprinklers alone are not a panacea” for fire prevention.

City Council will now take the issue into a working session for further discussion.