Category Archives: Health and Wellness

Firefighters exposed to harmful chemicals through skin: study

A new study from the University of Ottawa has found that firefighters absorb toxic chemicals from smoke through their skin while on the job.

Published on the Environmental Science & Technology journal’s website on Oct. 18, “Elevated Exposures to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons and Other Organic Mutagens in Ottawa Firefighters Participating in Emergency, On-Shift Fire Suppression” detailed the results of a research team’s examinations of Ottawa Fire Services (OFS) members from Jan. 2015 to April 2016.

The report revealed that after fighting fires, urine samples of OFS workers show four times the potential for DNA damage and contain between three and five times more polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which are harmful chemical compounds often linked to cancer. Examples of common PAH metabolites in firefighters include naphthalene, pyrene, phenanthrene and fluorine.

“We were looking specifically at compounds that are known to be in smoke that could be contributing to health problems,” explained Dr. Jules Blais, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Ottawa and the leader of the research team. “We wanted to determine whether it is possible that the exposures that they experience during on-shift fire suppression could be contributing to this.”

The team studied urine samples and skin swabs from 27 male firefighters and 18 office workers before and after their OFS shifts, Dr. Blais added. “If they fought a fire during that shift, we would do sampling after the shift, and we would be able to see how those exposures changed.” The researchers also had firefighters fill out questionnaires on their roles in the fire-suppression event and the size of the fire and smoke.

OFS Captain David Matschke put the study in motion when he contacted the university after seeing an advertisement about research funding by the Ontario Ministry of Labour, who sponsored the report.

“I’d seen lots of previous studies that looked at exposures, but all of them were done with training fires and really didn’t represent what we were truly being exposed to,” said Captain Matschke. “So I felt there was a need to have a look at the real fires we were dealing with and what the new materials were producing for chemicals.”

Captain Matschke called the study results “somewhat surprising and somewhat not.

“We’ve all known for a long time that we’re being exposed to stuff,” he said. “The biggest ‘aha moment’ for us was when we determined that it wasn’t from breathing in stuff; it was more from the chemicals being deposited on our skin.”

The researchers looked for evidence of lung damage in the study subjects, but found no change from before and after fires. “But what we did find,” said Dr. Blais, “was that when we did skin swabs and looked at what was depositing to their skin, and compared that with what we found in their urine, there was a pretty close correlation. So this suggested that dermal exposure, exposure through the skin, is a driving factor.”

For Dr. Blais, the “take-home message” of the study is to find a way to reduce chemical exposure to firefighters’ skin. “There’s good reason to suspect that dermal exposure,” he said, “is important in determining whether a firefighter is exposed to these chemicals.”

“We’ve already submitted to the Ministry of Labour for a follow-on study on the best methods for removal of the toxins. So we’re hoping to get an answer on the funding for that shortly,” said Captain Matschke. “How do we get it off? Or how do we reduce the effects of it?”

“Elevated Exposures to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons” is accessible online at; non-subscribers must pay US$40 for access to the full report for 48 hours.

Advocate calls for better availability for PTSD treatment for Atlantic first responders

A former Nova Scotia MP is calling for better accessibility to treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for police officers, paramedics, correctional officers and other first responders in the eastern provinces, following recent reports that the Halifax Regional Police (HRP) could not cover treatment for at least two officers.

Peter Stoffer, a part-time advocate with Trauma Healing Centers in Dartmouth, N.S. and the NDP MP for the Sackville area from 1997 to 2015, referred to “a bit of a bureaucratic malaise” that had prevented one of the officers from getting treatment in Ontario, as her medical team had advised her, on the HRP’s dime.

“There’s only X number of dollars within the budget, and there are contractual obligations according to their collective agreement. That’s from my understanding,” said Stoffer. “There are always exceptions to collective agreements. There are ways the union and management could sit down together to see what can be done in order to ensure that this woman gets the best help that they can possibly give her.”

He added that a treatment facility for the Atlantic provinces, specifically designed for all first responders and the military, would be a “wonderful” idea.

“It would go a long way to, one, accessing the care, the professional-quality care that people are looking for, without really having to move away from the region,” said Stoffer. “And then it would probably end up saving money, because then, you don’t have to move people to either Ontario or Montreal or where else to get the treatment that they’re looking for.”

An online CBC News report from Oct. 4 sparked brief controversy when it quoted HRP Chief Jean-Michel Blais on the issue. The story appeared to imply that Chief Blais – a champion of mental-health awareness who has talked openly about his personal experiences with PTSD – wanted the onus to be on the officers themselves to get treatment and that PTSD was overshadowing other mental-health illnesses in the department.

While Stoffer said he had been “disappointed” by Chief Blais’ comments in the story, he conceded that Blais had probably been misunderstood.

“The chief had responded in kind to what was happening, and unfortunately, I think the message was lost in translation, as they say,” said Stoffer regarding the CBC story.

The HRP declined to comment on any specific cases, but in an e-mailed reply to COHSN, Chief Blais said that the mental and physical health of employees is a top priority for the force.

“We have done extensive work over the past few years in this area,” said Chief Blais, citing HRP initiatives like the Road to Mental Health Readiness program, the Employee & Families Assistance Program and the establishment of its first wellness-coordinator position.

“All of these steps have brought health and wellness to the forefront, and it includes a range of mental-health issues, not simply PTSD,” he added. “We are also going through independent processes that may help determine the future direction of the level of supports available – and we look forward to the outcomes.

“As public-sector organizations, these discussions are critical to have – as they highlight the importance of openly talking about mental-health issues like PTSD, as well as our broader organizational obligations.”

Stoffer said he believed that the aforementioned officer should get the treatment she needs in Ontario through the HRP’s assistance. “For me, that’s the straightforward solution,” he said.

“The woman served her municipality, she’s a police officer, she’s one of the heroes of our country. We never ask them about dollars and cents when they face a very difficult and dangerous situation. Why, then, should we be questioning the nickels and dimes when they need help?”

Ontario government to fund review on effects of McIntyre Powder

Nearly 40 years after the Ontario mining sector ceased the practice of making workers inhale McIntyre Powder, the provincial government is planning to provide funding for a review of the powder’s long-term effects on miners’ health.

A news bulletin from the Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL) stated on Oct. 11 that the province will provide a $1 million grant to the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), which is conducting the review. OHCOW will assemble a team of health professionals to research whether past exposure to McIntyre Powder is connected to health issues. A proven connection would allow ill former miners to claim compensation from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

A finely ground dust of aluminum oxide and aluminum, McIntyre Powder was once believed to prevent silicosis. From 1943 to around 1980, 45 Ontario mining companies exposed about 10,000 employees to the substance in a province-wide prevention program, according to information from the MOL. Today, OHCOW has 325 case files from current and former miners who were exposed to the powder, while another 195 have reported health effects to a voluntary registry run by the McIntyre Powder Project.

“In addition to this funding initiative, we have conducted a comprehensive mining safety review,” Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn said in a press statement. “Implementation of its recommendations is well underway to further the health and safety of mine workers.

“It is critical that occupational diseases be treated with the same seriousness and importance as physical injuries,” added Flynn.

Marcelle Crouse, the province’s Acting Chief Prevention Officer, said in a statement that the grant would help to expand OHCOW’s capacity to address miners’ occupational illnesses.

“It is essential mine practices be safe and that controls are put in place to prevent dangerous exposure,” said Crouse. “We all have a shared responsibility to ensure workers are protected when they work in Ontario mines.”

McIntyre Powder Project founder Janice Martell thanked Flynn and his staff for working with her organization to research the health effects of the powder.

“This funding is critically important to enable the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers to process the large volume of information gathered from mine workers and their families by the McIntyre Powder Intake Clinics working group,” said Martell in a statement.

Martell founded the McIntyre Powder Project in 2015, after her father, Jim Hobbs, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease following years of exposure to the powder on the job. Hobbs died earlier this year in Elliot Lake, Ont. (COHSN, June 6).

There are currently about 40 underground mines and thousands of surface mines in Ontario, employing about 26,000 workers, according to the MOL.

Author of PTSD study to speak at Toronto mental-health summit

TORONTO, Ont. – The Ontario Labour Minister’s annual PTSD Summit is taking place on Oct. 17 this year at the Chestnut Conference Centre in Toronto, and Dr. Nick Carleton of the University of Regina has been invited to be the keynote speaker. An e-mail from the office of Kevin Flynn stated that the conference will gather together mental-health experts and first responders, including police officers, firefighters and paramedics, to discuss post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how to decrease the risk of it in workplaces. Dr. Carleton recently authored a report on PTSD and other mental-health issues in Canada’s public-safety sector, “Mental Disorder Symptoms among Public Safety Personnel in Canada”, which was published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry in August (COHSN, Sept. 5). The PTSD Summit begins at 8:45 a.m. on the 17th, according to Flynn’s office.

Sun, asbestos among top causes of work-related cancer in Ontario, says OCRC report

A recent report by the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) in Toronto has identified solar radiation, asbestos, diesel-engine exhaust and crystalline silica as the four major causes of work-related cancer in Ontario.

Burden of Occupational Cancer in Ontario, published on Sept. 28, was based on statistics from CAREX Canada, a Burnaby, B.C.-based organization that tracks carcinogens, as well as input from scientific and policy experts, according to an OCRC news release. The study found that about 1,400 Ontario workers are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer from on-the-job sun exposure every year, while asbestos exposure causes nearly 800 occupational cancer cases in the province annually.

“The objective of the study was really to raise awareness about the importance of occupational cancer, the size of the issue, and to promote prevention,” explained OCRC director Dr. Paul A. Demers, one of the report’s three authors. “We were funded for a large project by the Canadian Cancer Society to estimate the number of new cancers that are diagnosed each year that are caused by workplace carcinogens.”

The 60-page report stated that diesel-engine exhaust in workplaces causes an estimated 170 lung-cancer cases and 45 bladder-cancer cases in Ontario each year, while crystalline silica accounts for nearly 200 cases of occupational lung cancer.

“The report actually does identify a number of other carcinogens that cause cancers and other ones where we know there’s exposure and the number of cases may be uncertain,” added Dr. Demers. But sun, asbestos, diesel-engine exhaust and crystalline silica are the four “big hitters.”

About 450,000 Ontarians are exposed to solar radiation on the job, the study revealed, while approximately 301,000 workers in the province are exposed to diesel-engine exhaust and about 142,000 are exposed to crystalline silica. Among the diseases that asbestos exposure causes in Ontario are mesothelioma and lung, laryngeal and ovarian cancer.

The numbers did not surprise Dr. Demers and his colleagues, but he conceded that the statistics on sun exposure might startle people unfamiliar with previous research on it.

“Most people don’t realize how common skin cancer is, and we tend to attribute them in the healthcare community to just recreational sun exposure,” he said. “But in fact, there’s a large segment of the working population that really works outdoors almost all the time and has no choice but to be out there in the sun.

“The only way to protect them is, I think, a programmatic approach,” added Dr. Demers, “which would involve a number of different aspects, and really not the same approach you would necessarily use for recreational sun exposure.”

The report made several general policy recommendations to reduce occupational cancer cases in Ontario, including strengthening occupational exposure limits, establishing exposure registries and surveillance and reducing the use of toxic substances.

“This report does make recommendations that are broad and crosscutting, and sometimes, they’re fairly specific in terms of, for instance, sun exposure and the need to have more sun-protection programs,” said Dr. Demers.

“Here in Ontario, we have a Toxics Reduction Act, where we can proactively try to eliminate carcinogens in the workplace through changes in technology and substitution. So we have tools in place.”

Burden of Occupational Cancer in Ontario is available online at

New online resource raises awareness of mental health for education sector

NATIONAL – Toronto-based insurance provider Teachers Life has released an online resource on mental-health issues for schoolteachers across Canada. Launched on Oct. 5, Ready for Life was developed in partnership with Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario, according to a press release from Teachers Life, a federally regulated company that serves the education sector. The website includes advice, articles, quizzes and input from mental-health experts aimed at education professionals. The site also features expert content on students’ mental health. Teachers Life encouraged anybody working in the Canadian education industry, as well as parents, to visit the site in the release. “We have seen an increase in stress-related claims in recent years,” Teachers Life president and CEO Mark Cummings said in a media statement. “While this is consistent within the insurance industry and a challenge across Canadian workplaces, because our mission is to serve the needs of those who work in education, we felt it was important to develop this resource.” Ready for Life is accessible at

Inspection blitz targeting musculoskeletal risks in mining sector

TORONTO, Ont. – The Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL) announced on Oct. 4 that it had already begun conducting an inspection blitz of mines and mining plants across the province, focusing on hazards that can lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). A news bulletin from the MOL stated that the blitz is running from Oct. 2 to Nov. 30 and aims to reduce the risks of MSD hazards and slips, trips, and falls. Among the tasks that can cause MSDs in miners are manual material handling and operating equipment that causes extreme hand-arm vibration, the Ministry noted. Awkward or sustained posture, repetitive motion and lifting, pushing or pulling heavy objects also cause occupational MSDs. “MSDs cause pain and suffering for thousands of workers every year and cost Ontario workplaces millions of dollars due to absenteeism and lost productivity,” Marcelle Crouse, the province’s acting chief prevention officer, said in a press statement. “Our goal is to protect workers on the job. We’re working together to build awareness of MSD hazards and prevent injuries.” MSDs are the most common type of time-loss injuries reported to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, the bulletin added.

Two construction workers hospitalized after CO leak

RED DEER, Alta. – Carbon-monoxide (CO) exposure at a Red Deer beer store sent two construction workers to a local hospital for examination on the morning of Oct. 4. According to a news release from the Alberta RCMP, a group of construction workers became ill from CO while on the job at the Co-op Liquor Store, and emergency responders were called to the building at about 8:45 a.m. Personnel with the RCMP’s Red Deer detachment and the Hazardous Materials Response Unit also attended the scene shortly before 9 a.m. First responders treated several of the workers at the scene before two of them were transported to the hospital; both workers were listed in stable condition later that day, police said. The store remained closed for the day, and the incident did not affect traffic or any other individuals outside of the store. Police determined that there was nothing criminal in nature about the leak and handed the investigation over to the occupational health and safety division of Alberta Labour.

Conference confronts high injury rates of B.C. healthcare assistants

VANCOUVER, B.C. – The Hearts and Hands Conference brought together more than 250 healthcare assistants at Vancouver’s Italian Cultural Centre on Oct. 3, to discuss the issue of time-loss injuries among British Columbia’s healthcare assistants. A news release from WorkSafeBC, which co-sponsored the conference, stated that the event would include seminars on the challenges of staying healthy in the profession and coping strategies. WorkSafeBC claimed that it receives more time-loss claims from healthcare assistants than from people in any other occupation, including more than 16,000 claims from 2012 to 2016. The most commonly cited causes of injury are overexertion, violence and slips, trips and falls. “Frontline workers in healthcare face many challenges that can profoundly affect their morale and sense of well-being,” Elizabeth Causton, a former clinical counsellor and the conference’s keynote speaker, said in a press statement. “Maintaining good health and resiliency involves embracing the challenges we can control, celebrating individual and collective strengths to foster a more positive environment and nourishing a joyful life.” Another Hearts and Hands Conference is planned for Oct. 26 in Victoria, the release noted.

RCMP officer injured by man ramming her car before fleeing

KELOWNA, B.C. – The Kelowna detachment of the RCMP has arrested a 66-year-old man who is accused of injuring a female Mountie by ramming his vehicle into hers before fleeing police on Sept. 24. According to a news release from the detachment, officers from both the Kelowna and Lake Country RCMP responded to a call about a man yelling erratically outside of his residence at 12:50 p.m. that day. “Officers… immediately began efforts to de-escalate the situation,” Corporal Jesse O’Donaghey, an RCMP media-relations officer, said in a press statement. “The male retreated to his personal vehicle, [with] which… he proceeded to ram one of the police vehicles twice prior to fleeing the scene.” One of the Lake Country officers sustained non-life-threatening injuries from the incident and was still recovering as of Sept. 25, the release noted. Cpl. O’Donaghey added that police had monitored the suspect’s vehicle with the help of unmarked police vehicles and the Southeast District RCMP Air Services. Officers soon apprehended the suspect under the Mental Health Act at his home and transported him to a hospital for medical assessment. He is now facing unspecified charges.