Three essential steps to reduce your exposure to carcinogens

Protect, clean and decontaminate with products that meet the highest standards

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By Robert Avsec for FireRescueOne BrandFocus

By now, every firefighter and fire officer should be aware of their increased risk of developing cancer when compared to the general population. But awareness and education alone are not going to reduce your risk as a firefighter. Only specific actions taken by you and your department can do that. Here are three specific actions that can help reduce your exposure, and some specific product recommendations:

Proper decontamination can help reduce your cancer risk
Proper decontamination can help reduce your cancer risk (image/

1. Upgrade your protective hood

If you’re not using a particulate-resistant fire hood as part of your structural firefighting protective ensemble, you’re leaving yourself vulnerable to a variety of harmful chemicals, compounds, and particulates. The function of the particulate hood is to protect against your skin’s exposure to both fire and carcinogens. The skin is the largest organ of the human body in area, approximately 20 square feet to be exact, and is highly absorptive. Some skin areas are more permeable than others, specifically the face, the angle of the jaw, the neck and throat, and the groin. Skin’s permeability increases with temperature. For every 5 degree increase in skin temperature, absorption increases by 400 percent.

Previous generations of protective hoods did a good job of protecting these body areas from the thermal threat of interior structural firefighting. However, they failed to provide protection from liquids, gases, and/or particulates produced by the combustion of today’s structures and their contents. Tests conducted by the International Association of Firefighters in 2015 indicated that those traditional hoods demonstrated weak penetration resistance to particulate matter. From these studies the need for an even more protective hood was realized. Thus, leading us into the updated NFPA 1971 standard.

NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting specifies that particulate-resistant (or filter) firefighting protective hoods must have a particulate filtering efficiency of 90 percent or greater for particulate matter 0.1 microns to 1.0 microns (one micron is equal to 1/1000th of a millimeter). Manufacturers such as Honeywell have quickly brought to market particulate-resistant firefighter protective hoods that are compliant with the particulate filtering requirements of NFPA 1971.

Years of research and development have led to the manufacture of these next-generation particulate hoods that can help you to better protect yourself from ever-changing fire loads. Your department and your family count on you to continue coming home – these particulate hoods can help ensure that you do.

2. Practice personal on-scene decontamination

Many fire departments have put gross decontamination into practice for all firefighting personnel immediately upon leaving the hazard area of a structure fire. While removing contamination from the outer PPE is important, so too is personal cleansing of those vulnerable skin areas – the hands, face, neck and throat. Immediately upon doffing PPE is when firefighters should be decontaminating those vulnerable spots with items such as decon disposable wipes.

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

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.

Individually-packaged, disposable wipes like FireWipes make it easy for fire departments to readily provide decon measures for their personnel to use as they exit hazardous areas. That greater availability can help ensure that their firefighters clean those vulnerable skin areas after every exposure to smoke and soot from interior firefighting operations. Individual, waterproof packaging prolongs shelf-life and eliminates waste and cross contamination.

Keeping decon wipes readily available on scene helps to limit the amount of exposure time your body is in contact with particulates and carcinogens.

3. Decontaminate your firefighter PPE

With all that we’ve learned – and continue to learn – about the chemistry and physics of today’s fires, it’s imperative that you clean your turnout gear following any fire incident, even as small as a dumpster fire. This practice will mitigate cancer-causing carcinogens by a staggering amount.  If you want to remove these harmful carcinogens, you need to use the right cleaning solution designed to clean turnouts safely and effectively.

Sure, you could use regular laundry detergent, but considering what’s at stake, why would you?  Think about the research and development that went into producing your state-of-the-art PPE. Think about the time and money invested by your fire department to get the best PPE possible for you and your fellow firefighters. Now, why would you entrust your PPE to anything but the best possible cleaning and decontamination product during on scene mitigation (gross decon) and the wash cycle?

NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting specifies that firefighter PPE cleaning and decontamination should be done using a mild detergent with a pH range of 6.0-10.5 as listed on the product’s original container or its Manufacturer Safety Data Sheet.  A good example of a PPE cleaner that removes carcinogens and is NFPA 1851 compliant is CitroSqueeze. This specialty detergent has cleaned over 2 million sets of turnouts and has been extensively tested and proven to maintain the protective quality of textiles from major manufacturers of PPE apparel and FR clothing.

Firefighters and officers are becoming more informed and educated about the increased risk of contact with carcinogens that is an inherent risk of the profession. By taking steps to protect your head, your skin and your gear, you can better protect yourself, your loved ones and your future health.  It is time to start thinking about tomorrow.

About the Author

Batt. Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's EFO Program. 

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