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When is your PPE clean enough? How to care for garments that have been exposed to soot, smoke and toxic substances

Good news: research defines decon best practices on reducing your exposure to toxic substances


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When is your PPE clean enough? How to care for garments that have been exposed to soot, smoke and toxic substances

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By Yoona Ha, FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff

When you think of the hazards of being a firefighter, cancer (commonly known as the silent killer in the fire service industry) rarely comes first to mind. But the reality is that firefighters are 9 percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and 14 percent more likely to die from cancer relative to the general U.S. population.

Firefighters also need to educate themselves on effective decon practices and how to best implement them into their daily operations. (image/Globe)
Firefighters also need to educate themselves on effective decon practices and how to best implement them into their daily operations. (image/Globe)

In 2015, a landmark study by the CDC that examined 30,000 firefighters over a 60-year span revealed that on average, firefighters are more prone to develop oral, digestive, respiratory, genital and urinary cancers. Plus, firefighters who had more exposure to fires were more susceptible than their peers to develop lung cancer and leukemia.

Whenever we hear of statistics like these, it’s a knee-jerk response to overlook these warnings until it hits close to home. But what makes cancer different from other threats on the fireground is that there isn’t one approach to mitigating risk. In fact, it requires us to develop protective living habits that go beyond maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

When your job requires you to continuously expose yourself to carcinogens (some of which come from soot and smoke from high-toxin synthetic material and electronics), it’s especially crucial that you follow effective decontamination procedures to protect yourself from the harmful chemicals and contaminants on your PPE.

The efficacy of wet-soap decon practices

One study looked at the effectiveness of dry-brush decon (using an industrial scrub brush to scrape debris and contaminants from the gear), air-based decon (in which an air stream provided by a modified electric leaf blower was used to blow off the entire surface of turnout gear) and wet-soap decon (in which a commonly available detergent was used in combination with water and scrub brush to clean off the gear) in removing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from PPE, as well as the effectiveness of skin cleansing wipes to remove PAHs from neck skin and hand skin.

The findings of this study found wet-soap decon to be the most effective at removing PAH contamination from turnout gear. Commercial wipes were also found to effectively remove PAH contamination from neck skin.

“What we were truly trying to achieve in this project was to get a better understanding of the risks we face in the fireground and at fire training facilities and how we can better reduce those risks through practices such as decon,” said Gavin Horn, director of research at the Illinois Fire Service Institute and a co-author for this study. “We found that the wet-soap decontamination technique removes about 85 percent of the PAH contamination on the fireground, so we can remove those risks before the gear is put back on the apparatus and makes its way back to the station.”

If you think about it, a wet-soap decon technique is cheap and can be completed in under three minutes. And unlike dry-brush decon, wet-soap decon reduces the risk of re-exposure to airborne PAH contaminants.

But what if you’re unclear when to stop cleaning your turnout gear?

Turns out, a firefighter’s guide to whether additional cleaning is necessary comes from the selection, care and maintenance guide from the NFPA 1851 standards.

“The NFPA 1851 offers guidance, but it’s actually often left up to the firefighters themselves to determine whether he or she has been exposed and needs to be decontaminated,” said Horn. “Different departments have different policies, and there’s research that still needs to be done so we can better understand when we need to clean turnout gear and how to best clean turnout gear.”

How firefighter education plays a huge role

Firefighters also need to educate themselves on effective decon practices and how to best implement them into their daily operations.

“Of course we can’t expect a single policy to be applicable to every fire department and every situation,” said Horn, “but we can provide the information that will support departments in making decisions to do what is best for their firefighters within their operational realities.”

There are two types of turnout gear cleaning, according to NFPA 1851: routine and advanced. Wet-soap decon can be done on the scene by firefighters themselves, but what sets apart advanced cleaning is that it is done with mechanical involvement (think extractors) to remove some contaminants, and often less frequently. PPE manufacturers can be a valuable resource for detailed cleaning and decontamination information.

“What a firefighter doesn’t know can hurt him or her, so as manufacturers we view it as our job to get information out there on the importance of clean gear, which includes on site routine cleaning, as well as advanced (mechanical) cleaning as often as may be necessary,” said Pat Freeman, technical services manager for Globe. Freeman’s work focuses on ensuring that Globe’s protective garments are certified and compliant with industry safety standards.

Firefighters who want to take it a step further can take training courses offered by manufacturers, such as Firefighter Cancer: Prevention and Health and Online NFPA 1851 Training Course, offered by Globe as training and safety resources. Freeman also encourages firefighters to contact their gear manufacturer for additional resources on how to make the most of their PPE.

“[When it comes to firefighter health and safety] the biggest thing we can do as manufacturers is to offer as much training and education as we possibly can,” said Freeman. “PPE is simply one important aspect of firefighter safety. As manufacturers, we like to say that it is our job to protect the people who protect the people.”

Firefighters can better protect themselves by practicing wet-soap decon practices and other advanced cleaning procedures as outlined in NFPA 1851. Plus, they can also tap into many free online resources offered by companies like Globe.

Without a doubt, our understanding of what it means to properly clean, maintain and store our protective clothing has come a long way. Now when we see a firefighter with dirty gear, we no longer consider it a badge of honor or a sign of a seasoned veteran. We know that it’s potentially a sign of a firefighter unaware of the hazards of wearing soiled protective gear.

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