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7 easy ways firefighters can reduce their cancer risk

Don’t just wash your turnout gear – decontaminate it with a solution that eliminates carcinogens

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Carcinogens abound on any active fireground. Thorough cleaning and decontamination of PPE to get rid of the toxins known to cause cancer will go a long way to ensuring a long career and a healthy retirement.
Carcinogens abound on any active fireground. Thorough cleaning and decontamination of PPE to get rid of the toxins known to cause cancer will go a long way to ensuring a long career and a healthy retirement. (image/Pixabay)

Sponsored by Decon7 Systems

By Rachel Zoch, FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff

A recent NIOSH study confirms the long-suspected link between firefighting and a higher risk of cancer, with its findings that more than two-thirds of firefighters develop cancer versus less than a quarter of the general population. In particular, firefighters have a higher risk of respiratory, digestive and bladder cancers.

Carcinogens abound on any active fireground, and the increased use of synthetic materials and plastics in construction and furnishings means increased exposure to harmful chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde from burning walls, insulation and furniture. These substances may be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Given these sobering facts, it’s important to recognize that decon isn’t just for hazmat scenes and to carefully consider your decontamination process. Here are seven things you can do to reduce your exposure to carcinogens common on the fireground.

On the Fireground

  1. Keep your mask on. Respiratory cancers are among the most common cancers among firefighters. Always wear your SCBA to avoid inhaling toxins, even when working on the edge of the fireground or during overhaul.

    “What you’re smelling is cancer,” said Joe Hill, defense product manager for Decon7 Systems, a supplier of decontamination products and training. “In this day and age, it should be common knowledge. This shouldn’t be a secret.”
  2. Remove contaminated gear as soon as possible and store it in dedicated containers away from the rehab area. Keep soiled PPE out of the apparatus cabin, ambulance and personal vehicles – as well as your station living quarters – to avoid contaminating these areas.
  3. Clean on the scene. Wash and decontaminate your PPE, your tools and your body as soon as possible after each fire, starting on scene.

    It’s important to note here that although a recent AFG/CDC study found that scrubbing turnout gear with soap and water can reduce PPE contamination by 85 percent, this process does not neutralize or eliminate carcinogens – it simply removes them to the wash water or runoff, which still contains the hazardous chemicals.

    Decontamination with a neutralizing agent, such as D7 from Decon7 Systems, alters the chemical properties of carcinogens to render them nontoxic, eliminating the threat. D7 is available in four formulas, including bulk liquid or ready-to-use units that can be deployed in seconds, much like a fire extinguisher.
  4. Clean your neck, face, arms and groin thoroughly after each fire. These are areas with lots of blood vessels where particulates tend to collect. It was once considered a badge of honor for a firefighter to come home with a sooty face, but we know better now. Take care to remove this threat to your health as soon as possible.

At the Station

  1. Use a decontamination solution to eliminate carcinogens from turnout gear. Again, cleaning with soap and water on the fireground is an important first step, but it only moves the majority of the carcinogens off your gear. Get rid of the rest with a thorough decon back at the station.
  2. Shower, scrub and change into a clean uniform. Using cleansing wipes for your face, hands, etc. on scene is an important first step, but that isn’t near enough to thoroughly cleanse your body of the toxins from a fire.

    Also, be sure to put on fresh clothing. Whatever you were wearing under your turnout gear needs to go in the wash. Be sure to use a detergent that also neutralizes carcinogens, like D7 Laundry, for full decontamination. D7 is colorfast, biodegradable and will not degrade fabrics.
  3. Regularly launder turnout gear and wash your fire hood at least once a week (better yet, after every fire). Make and stick to a schedule to be sure your gear is decontaminated. It’s best to have two full sets of PPE and two hoods for every firefighter so that you can rotate.

    If you launder the gear in house, use a detergent that decontaminates and is tested and certified safe by NFPA standards for PPE, including fabrics, tape and liners. If you send your gear out for cleaning, make sure your service provider uses an adequate solution to ensure neutralization of carcinogens. If it comes out of the laundry still smelling of smoke, it’s still contaminated and off-gassing harmful chemicals.

Of course, healthy habits like exercise, eating veggies and lean meats and wearing sunscreen will also help. But thorough cleaning and decontamination of PPE to get rid of the contaminants known to cause cancer will go a long way to ensuring a long career and a healthy retirement.

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