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PPE cleaning products and processes: Ensuring the claims match the science

A simple checklist helps fire service leaders evaluate PPE technology and cleaning claims

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Photo/Greeley Fire Department

It is all too easy to believe that technology holds the answers for solving the fire service’s most persistent problems. After all, there have been some amazing technical achievements in the last several decades. Just think how far SCBA and PPE have come in the past 30 years – lighter-weight, more breathable materials, plus ergonomic designs, enhanced protection and often greater durability.

A host of innovative ideas and engineering has gone into several new products and related services, and we expect that these trends will continue as various groups endeavor to achieve the next state-of-the-art product. However, as much as we would all like to believe there is a “magic bullet” out there or that we will discover the panacea to take care of all our nagging issues, the reality is that most improvements are incremental and it takes sound, correctly applied science to truly make the advancements for which we strive.

This is certainly the case for PPE cleaning and decontamination. The industry is quickly moving forward with new technologically advanced products and services to provide for easier and more effective cleaning; however, in some cases, the science is not yet in place to support the claims being made.

[Learn more: How to assess contaminated turnout clothing]

All that glitters is not gold

Over the last decade, we have seen an ever-increasing number of claims being made by various organizations touting anti-cancer features, whether it be a new machine, cleaning chemical or process. Some of these claims are well founded and are supported by specific data using standardized or otherwise relevant tests that do show significant differences between the new and the existing products and services.

It is critical that the testing process itself is appropriate in order to yield meaningful results. It is relatively easy to create a test that will show differences, which may seem important when presented. However, some results may be more about how the test is performed, rather than truly reflecting the relevant measurements.

Some companies that promote new products and services like to cite government-based studies as a means of their relevance for fire service application. This has occurred in many cases where certain products, particularly cleaning agents, were designed for some other purpose, such as those intended for decontaminating clothing and services exposed to chemical, biological and radiological agents – and were then subsequently repositioned for firefighter use. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but it is important that such claims not be the sole basis for promotion of the product or service. This is because fireground contamination involves highly complex mixtures of combustion products, such as fire gases, various liquids and soot particulates, which are not the same as specific chemical or biological agents. Any representation of these products specific for fire service use should also have specific data relevant to firefighter clothing contamination.

There are many other products and services where very general and unsupported claims are made, particularly statements like “prevents firefighter cancer by lowering exposure to fireground carcinogens.” Not only are these statements bordering on disease prevention claims, which are specifically prohibited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, they are misleading by inferring that the product or process 1) reduces contaminants of interest to levels where exposure does not occur (most substances do not have established maximum exposure levels) and 2) universally address all type of contaminants.

Broad-spectrum performance against all contaminants really isn’t that simple. The contaminants present can also be toxic, carcinogenic chemicals or otherwise hazardous chemicals that are highly varied and possess widely ranging properties that affect how easily they are removed or neutralized by cleaning products or processes. The term “neutralized” warrants comment because neutralization generally means that the cleaning agent or process changes the chemical (by reaction or isolation) to make it non-hazardous and likely not to cause exposure. This is in contrast to products or processes that physically remove the contaminant(s), as occurs through most ordinary detergent-based wash processes. Because many persistent contaminants have altogether different chemistries, the universal cleaning approach is often elusive since chemical and particulate contaminants behave differently during cleaning. Therefore, the fire service should be wary of broad-spectrum contaminant-removal or -neutralization claims.

Further, there are some providers of products, such as detergents and other cleaning agents, which claim that they are certified to or approved by NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. Many of these claims are erroneous since the NFPA 1851 standard does not establish approval or certification of any products. Further, NFPA itself does not approve or certify any products or services. Instead, NFPA 1851 does set general parameters for machines and detergents, but even when these parameters are met, it is not an endorsement of their cleaning efficiency. Instead, NFPA 1851 only recently has included cleaning verification criteria that apply to independent service providers (ISPs) and other organizations that commercially clean firefighter clothing.

Relying on NFPA 1851

When advanced cleaning (and sanitization) verification procedures were introduced in late 2019 as part of the revamped NFPA 1851 in regard to qualifying ISP, cleaning organizations, manufacturers and those fire departments that elect to be qualified, these procedures were intended to provide the “measuring stick” by which cleaning effective claims could be made. A great deal of science went into how these procedures were developed, including the types of contaminants that were selected for evaluation and the overall steps used in measuring how well a specific cleaning process would remove these contaminants from outer-shell materials in a reliable way representative of actual practice.

The NFPA’s Fire Protection Research Foundation team that worked on these procedures had to make choices about the testing process so that it could be repeatable and provide meaningful results. For example, the procedures address three types of contaminants: 1) semi-volatile organic compounds, 2) inorganic heavy metals and 3) bacteria representative of infectious microorganisms.

While the whole point of introducing these procedures was to establish uniform procedures to evaluate cleaning effectiveness, the net effect for including these procedures was to also benchmark current mainstream cleaning procedures and allow industry to quantify improvements for new products and procedures. In fact, the minimum criteria in NFPA 1851 for cleaning verification was set to be relatively low at >50% removal rates (cleaning efficiencies) to ensure that most current processes would “pass,” so that the fire service could see improvements in cleaning capabilities as new product and service technologies advanced.

Another intent of the new NFPA 1851 requirements was to encourage makers of individual cleaning products, machines or processes to apply the cleaning-verification procedure in new developments using the same metrics so that standardized claims for effectiveness could be made when carried out by a competent laboratory. Right now, the standard is limited to cleaning of outer shells on garments by organizations that routinely provide commercial services, or those fire departments that choose to validate their own cleaning processes.

While individual products, machines or entire processes are not explicitly covered in the standard, it is possible to use the same procedures as the basis for science-based claims. It is further expected that the procedures can be adapted to extend to other protective clothing elements, such as garment liners, hoods and gloves as a way of showing the effectiveness of unique processes for these other items. Indeed, the Fire Protection Research Foundation is already undertaking this approach as part of further investigations for “How Clean is Clean” under a project entitled, “Validation of Cleaning Procedures for Fire Fighter Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) & Equipment.” These efforts are expected to provide additional measuring sticks for measuring the relative effectiveness of cleaning for different articles of firefighter protective clothing.

It is important to point out that NFPA 1851 adds further scientific information on the limitations of non-standardized assessments of cleaning clothing, such as the difficulties for getting reliable, consistent samples for side-by-side cleaning. Typical practices involve obtaining a contaminated set of turnout gear, cutting it in half, washing one half, and then taking samples from both sides to ascertain contaminant removal. Unfortunately, the assumption that contamination is uniform over the entire clothing item does not always hold up, and any observed differences between dirty and clean sides may just be the difference in sample locations.

In addition, NFPA 1851 recommends demonstrating the impact of new cleaning agents and processes by putting new clothing samples through multiple cycles and then assessing if any key performance properties change. Given that clothing is often washed more than twice a year and can last several years, a minimum of 20 cleaning cycles should be applied. This is an important step because even if the agent or process cleans effectively, it could still ruin the clothing by compromising certain properties.

A useful checklist

The fire service should be diligent about the choices it makes with respect to new technologies, particularly when it comes to determining the relative utility for their use in cleaning relatively expensive PPE effectively. We recommend the following items as part of this process:

  • Products or services do not make overreaching cancer prevention claims. The statements should be technical, not medical, in nature.
  • Products or services do not claim to be certified or approved by NFPA. Only ISPs and other organizations that have gone through cleaning verification by certification organizations meeting all the criteria of NFPA 1851 can make a claim that their processes are “verified.”
  • Where specific claims for contaminant removal are made, there should be data to support these claims, not just statements.
  • Testing should be based on standardized methods, or in the absence of a referenced test, a detailed description of the procedures that were applied.
  • Data should come from recognized laboratories that provide evidence of effectiveness. Testing laboratories should be competent in analytical testing and preferably also in the evaluation of protective clothing.
  • These data should list or identify specific chemicals or groups of chemicals and provide information such as applied contamination levels and detection levels.
  • When comparisons are made between existing and new products or processes, the testing should have been performed at the same time or at least using the same exact procedures.
  • If scientific information is summarized for the purpose of its use in marketing information, the manufacturer or supplier should be able to provide a copy of the report on which the information is based.
  • Evidence should be provided that cleaning products or services do not harm firefighter PPE, which is provided either by the PPE or material suppliers, or on the basis of test data showing the effects after multiple cycles of cleaning compared to new and uncleaned clothing.
  • Ideally, if specific claims are made for the cleaning of garments, testing should be carried out using the procedures established in NFPA 1851.

Stay vigilant

We all hope that the trend for improved fire service awareness in cleaning PPE continues and that this trend in practice is facilitated by ever-improving technology that not only makes cleaning easier but also more effective. Nevertheless, it is important that fire service be ever vigilant for using truly scientifically valid products and processes toward this end.

Note: The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.

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Get all the facts about Personal Protective Equipment. Foremost PPE expert Jeffrey Stull writes ‘PPE Update,’ a FireRescue1 column that covers personal protective equipment options, fit, selection and all the regulations for its care and maintenance.