Using gloves to doff firefighter gear: Overkill or a necessary SOP?

Are you exposing yourself, your crew and even your family to carcinogens by the way you remove your firefighter gear?

Research out of the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute has been examining fireground exposures and how carcinogen exposure occurs for firefighters. For dermal exposure, it has been well recognized that exposures can occur when chemicals breach the gear. In particular, research has found areas of gear interface (e.g., wrists, neck and groin) are especially high risk. 

Recent work shared by the IFSI scientists also indicates that how much exposure a firefighter gets is influenced not just by how they wear the gear, but also in how they take it off. An IFSI video shows two firefighters who fought the same fire at the same time, but doffed their gear differently. 

The firefighter who took his own gloves off contaminated his hands, which, in turn, spread the carcinogens further. His fellow firefighter had help removing his gloves and then put on latex gloves to doff the rest of his gear. His hands remained soot free. 

Some firefighters might argue that wearing latex examination gloves for doffing gear is overkill. But consider that wearing those gloves up until the late 70s and early 80s to protect against contaminated blood also seemed like overkill. Once the hazards associated with exposure were understood and appreciated, use of gloves to limit exposure wasn’t just acceptable – it became the standard. The same should be true for the use of gloves for doffing firefighter gear, given the evidence of the risk. What can and is transferred from the outside of firefighter gear poses a serious risk to firefighters and those around them.

Don’t take carcinogens back to your firehouse, or your family

In an effort to show firefighters what risks exist beyond the fireground, researchers out of the University of Miami developed a video that demonstrates how carcinogens can be transferred from the fireground.

Researchers simulated carcinogen exposure by sprinkling a glowing dust onto firefighters as they maneuvered through standard scenarios. They then had the firefighters doff their gear using their standard processes and return to the station the way they typically would post-incident. Firefighters went about the typical activities they do after a fire.

Later, the researchers returned with a glow lamp that showed where the simulated carcinogens were present in the fire house. Despite not being able to see the powder with the naked eye, a tour of the fire station showed remnants all over the place – on door handles, furniture and walls.

In another simulation, the firefighter practiced throwing a ball back and forth with a child after the simulated exposure – similar to how a firefighter might play with their child after getting home after a call. The glow light showed carcinogen exposure extended not just to the ball they were playing with, but glowing all over the little boy.

The message is clear – the risk is real and decontamination in every aspect is important. Cancer prevention has to focus on every aspect of firefighting, from how you doff your gear to how soon and how thoroughly you clean yourself after a run.

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