Why firefighters should decon with towelettes

Firefighters are especially vulnerable to cancer-causing contamination around the face and neck; there are several ways firefighters can clean that area on scene

One of the most current and relevant topics in firefighter safety today is reducing the risk of developing cancer from repeated exposures to toxic substances and carcinogens during firefighting operations.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer recognizes soot as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning that it is categorized as one of the worst carcinogens that firefighters can be exposed to, particularly during interior structural firefighting.

The parts of a firefighter’s body that are covered by their protective hood is the easiest place for toxic substances and carcinogens to meet the skin. That's because many hoods lack any type of barrier characteristics to keep out the superfine particles, soot, that absorb a variety of hazardous chemicals including carcinogens.

Additionally, NIOSH studies and other research has shown carcinogen buildup on firefighters' skin, particularly on the neck and face areas unprotected by the SCBA face piece. Human skin is an organ that readily absorbs those surface contaminants.

In the long term, there are several fire service groups, like NFPA, and firefighting protective hood manufacturers working to develop a hood that can protect firefighters from these skin exposures. In the short term, prompt removal of these skin contaminants, primarily soot, is the best course of action to minimize a firefighter’s exposure.

Fire service groups, like the International Association of Fire Chiefs and International Association of Fire Fighters, along with firefighter cancer advocacy groups, such as the International Firefighter Cancer Foundation and the Firefighter Cancer Support Network all recommend the prompt cleansing of the head, face and neck as soon as a firefighter’s protective ensemble is removed.

This recommendation has created a relative cottage industry of companies rushing to meet this newfound market.

Label reading

One manufacturer, Action Wipes, recommends evaluating wipes or towelettes for use in firefighter rehab and decontamination based on their ingredients, as "skin can absorb up to 68 percent of ingredients put on it; the absorption rate for underarms and genitalia is closer to 100 percent," it writes.

They advise to be on the lookout for harsh and toxic chemicals, colors and fragrances. These can be absorbed through the skin and enter body organs as well as the circulatory and lymphatic systems. The company also cautions against using antibacterial wipes, citing that the "FDA is studying the safety and efficacy of hand sanitizers and wipes that use alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol), isopropyl alcohol and benzalkonium chloride."

One group that’s already doing that research is the Environmental Working Group. EWG's Skin Deep database evaluates products and offers ways to protect against chemical exposures. Among the items EWG scientists evaluate are skin wipes and towelettes.

The core of Skin Deep is an electronic product database that contains ingredients in 64,708 products. EWG obtained detailed information on these products from online retailers, manufacturers, product packaging and, to a lesser extent, through other methods.

In most cases, the information EWG obtains includes a brand name, product name, directions for use, warnings, ingredients, package/advertising text and indications (cosmeceuticals).

What’s on the market

My research found that there are currently 16 brands of wipes or towelettes being marketed to the fire service for removal of skin contaminants following fire suppression operations. Table 1 below is Life Element's list of the brand names of those body wipes/towelettes.


Another product for removal of skin contaminants is scheduled to make its debut in June 2017. According to Terri Hennessey, owner of Hennessy Distributing/Cool Towel, the new decon towel is a spin-off from the all-natural cooling towel used for firefighter rehab.

“As I spoke with fire chiefs about the Cool-Towel, … many of them also asked if we had an all-natural decon towel,” said Hennessey. “We decided to go with a towel rather than a wipe because of the larger surface area of the towel.” 

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