Firefighting research looks at overhaul risk

By testing firefighters before and after overhaul activities, researchers hope to quantify their exposure risk to deadly airborne materials


Several fire departments monitor carbon monoxide after fires to know when it is safe for everyone to remove their SCBAs. Some departments wait until there isn't smoke to sound the all clear.

Research by the Underwriters Laboratory, funded by the Assistance to Firefighters Grant's Research and Development program at FEMA, suggests that basing the choice on what you see isn't enough. The UL team conducted a number of large-scale burns in their lab while monitoring the chemicals produced. The news is not good for firefighters who are quick to remove their SCBAs.

In the lab, a number of chemicals were present during fire and overhaul — carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, hydrogen chloride, nitrogen oxides, phenol, sulfer dioxide, isocyanates, benzene, chromium, formaldehyde and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Recommended exposure levels for carbon monoxide, benzene, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide and arsenic were exceeded during overhaul. Nearly all, more than 97 percent, of the smoke particulates collected during overhaul were too small to be visible.

So, while it looked like the air, there were actually a multitude of chemicals present.

Work in Illinois
The team also monitored chemical exposures of Chicago Fire Department firefighters and the accumulated chemicals on their hoods and gloves. Field monitoring with Chicago firefighters found gas exposures that were higher than recommended by OSHA standards.

They also found there were times when carbon monoxide was low but other harmful gasses were high. Smoke particulates contained metals like arsenic, cobalt, chromium, lead and phosphorous. When the team analyzed the gloves and hoods, they found the same chemicals and concentrations were 100 times higher on both.

In July, Dr. Gavin Horn and his colleagues at the Illinois Fire Service Institute in Champaign, Ill., will be conducting a series of tests to learn more about what firefighters are exposed to on the fireground. With funding from FEMA's Assistance to Firefighter Grant Research and Development mechanism, they will run 12 different burn scenarios in a 1,200 square foot ranch style home that was built for the study.

Firefighters' blood, breath, and urine will be tested prior to and after firefighting. Their cardiovascular responses will be monitored by a Holter monitor. This research will shed more light on the physiologic response and exposures firefighters face, which can shape best practices for minimizing exposure.

So why does it matter?

Here's what we know
The chemicals firefighters are exposed to can be inhaled, can stick to gear and can sink in through the skin. We know exposure to these chemicals can increase risk for cardiovascular disease — both morbidity and mortality. We also know there are several cancers that happen at higher rates among firefighters and are likely related to chemical exposures.

While the research is ongoing and the data pouring in, there are prevention strategies to decrease risks of cancer among firefighters. The Firefighter Cancer Support Network has a few suggestions for reducing your risk with a handy CANCER acronym.

  • Change out your PPE after every fire.
  • Always shower after every fire.
  • Never place dirty PPE in living areas, including your car.
  • Clean PPE regularly regardless of appearance.
  • Exhaust is deadly.
  • Remember to get annual physicals.

While there are risks inherent to firefighting that cannot be avoided, the increased risk of diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease makes prevention and intervention efforts all the more important for firefighters. 

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