Trending Topics

Why every firefighter should pay attention to unseen inhalation risks

Prevent long-term disease with breathing air safety precautions


Correctly using and maintaining SCBA and PPE limits the risk of exposures.

image/ Trace Analytics

Sponsored by Trace Analytics

By Molly Natchipolsky, FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff

Not so long ago, wearing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) was considered optional or only necessary in extreme conditions, and wearing dirty personal protective equipment (PPE) was a part of the job. Soot smeared faces, a hacking cough and “salty” turn-out gear meant a good day on the job and were badges of honor. Very few firefighters considered the safety of the air in their SCBAs as they rushed into incidents.

Fortunately, these attitudes and behaviors have changed as the fire service recognizes the implications this has on firefighter health and safety.

At every incident – from structural and wildland fires to hazmat incidents and confined space rescues – firefighters can be exposed to and absorb, toxic gases, vapors and particulates. Every year, more firefighters are facing a battle far more challenging than any incident they’ve thought about, trained for or encountered in their experience; they’re battling cancer.

Over the past decade, more evidence points to the link between firefighting and cancer. The multi-year studies conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health show that firefighters have a 9 percent increase in cancer diagnosis and a 14 percent increase in cancer deaths compared to the general population. They also are more likely to develop lung, esophageal and gastrointestinal cancers, and mesothelioma than the average American. Likewise, studies of Massachusetts firefighters found a greater risk for brain and colon cancers than non-firefighters.

In New York City, more than 1,000 members of the Fire Department of New York City have been diagnosed with cancers caused by toxins from the 9/11 attacks. Of those, more than 175 have died because of their illnesses.

It’s anticipated that the numbers will continue to climb nationally. This is due mostly to long-term, multiple exposures to countless carcinogens through inhalation and skin absorption.

Today’s homes and buildings burn hotter and faster than ever before, creating toxic smoke, gas and heat from the furnishings made of petroleum-based materials. Lightweight construction and open floor plans augment these fuel-rich environments, allowing fires to spread faster than in legacy buildings. Exposure to potential toxins at wildland fires and hazmat incidents has also increased.

As a result, any number of harmful and toxic compounds can be present at every phase of a fire – attack, overhaul and investigation. Correctly using and maintaining SCBA and PPE limits the risk of exposures, which in turn can reduce the risk of developing chronic and terminal illnesses, including cancer.

Dangerous contaminants surround fire fighters constantly, and unseen breathing air contamination can be just as threatening. Contaminated breathing air can lead to immediate risks as well as long-term diseases. As the culture of safety improves, the importance of compressed air testing becomes more and more important to fire departments across the country.

“The good news is the vast majority of departments now understand that wearing SCBA and PPE at every stage of a fire or incident is critical for the safety of their members,” explained Ruby Ochoa, president and owner of Trace Analytics, an accredited laboratory for compressed breathing air testing.

“Departments are also doing a great job of encouraging members to go through decontamination on scene and shower after incidents, to clean their gear, and leave it at the station rather than taking it home like everyone used to do. They are also now implementing safety procedures like compressed air testing to protect their members,” said Ochoa.

Properly maintaining and regularly testing compressed air breathing systems plays an important role in reducing exposure to a myriad of toxins.

“Because firefighters need to wear their PPE and SCBA from arrival to overhaul and even through investigation, it’s imperative that departments regularly test their breathing air fill systems for contamination to ensure the health and safety of their members,” Ochoa explained.

As recommended in NFPA 1989, compressed air breathing systems should be tested quarterly by an accredited laboratory, as well as any time contamination is suspected. This helps reduce the risk of exposure to common contaminants, such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, total volatile hydrocarbon and water vapor, as well as particulates that may be carcinogenic. With Trace Analytics, air samples can be easily obtained to test the breathing air quality from a compressor system. The AirCheck Kit complies with NFPA 1989’s sampling and analytical requirements.

“As a laboratory, our objective is to ensure the compressed air systems our nation’s firefighters use are performing to the highest standards,” said Ochoa. “We also want to be sure that everyone is embracing best practices for their personal health and safety. All of us at Trace Analytics feel it’s so important that all firefighters use their SCBA during every phase of a fire or emergency incident, and be sure to properly clean, store and test all of their equipment.”