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How NFPA-recommended diesel exhaust source capture systems protect firefighters’ health

Firefighters face serious health risks from diesel exhaust exposure, so departments must use NFPA-compliant equipment to protect staff

Sponsored by Plymovent

By Robert Avsec for FireRescue1 BrandFocus

Diesel engine exhaust emissions in fire stations expose firefighters to health risks, including certain types of cancers as well as pulmonary and cardiac diseases.

Fire departments must use NFPA-approved equipment to protect staff from diesel exhaust.
Fire departments must use NFPA-approved equipment to protect staff from diesel exhaust. (Photo/Plymovent)

Fire departments must take the appropriate action to understand and eliminate this exposure risk to their personnel in order to protect their health and reduce any potential workers’ compensation liabilities.


Diesel engines power a wide variety of vehicles in the fire service, from chief vehicles to engines.

According to an OSHA hazard alert, diesel exhaust presents several health hazards for firefighters when not properly controlled. Diesel engine exhaust contains unburned hydrocarbons (HC), carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

Diesel exhaust also contains diesel particulate matter (DPM), a component of diesel exhaust that includes soot particles made up primarily of carbon, ash, metallic abrasion particles, sulfates and silicates.

“Diesel soot particles have a solid core consisting of elemental carbon, with other substances attached to the surface, including organic carbon compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) ,” according to the hazard report.


PAHs are toxic to a person’s health. Studies find they are linked to increased incidences of lung, skin, and bladder cancers.

In addition, the OSHA hazard report warns that diesel exhaust gases and DPM may cause both short- and long-term health hazards. Short-term exposure to high concentrations of these substances can cause:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat

OSHA warns prolonged exposure to these substances (through inhalation and skin absorption) may increase the risk of cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary and respiratory disease as well as lung cancer.


If an organization doesn’t address diesel exhaust health risks, firefighters may fall sick and the organization may face a lawsuit for not protecting their employees or members from exposure to a known carcinogen.

In Culbert v. City of Jersey City, 175 N.J. 286, 291, (2003), a judge ruled that exposure to diesel exhaust increases risk of lung obstruction and was persuasive in the firehouse.

In Culbert, the plaintiff was awarded a workers’ compensation benefits ruling that said occupational exposure as a firefighter for 30 years contributed to the development of pulmonary disease.

The judge did not specifically state that diesel exhaust contributed to disability, but that it could increase chances of pulmonary disease. This is one example of how departments may be at risk of legal liability if they don’t protect firefighters at the firehouse.


Thankfully, diesel exhaust source capture systems help fire departments reduce the risk and aid in compliance with NFPA 1500: Standard for Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program.

NFPA 1500 (Chapter 9) asks fire departments to contain all vehicle exhaust emissions to a level of no less than 100 percent effective capture. This recommendation also complies with NIOSH’s requirement to reduce emissions to the lowest feasible level to limit impact on firefighters’ health.

The International Building Code (IBC) specifically asks departments to invest in a diesel exhaust source capture system that connects directly to the motor vehicle exhaust system. IBC-International Mechanical Code (IMC), Section 502.14 says “areas in which stationary motor vehicles are operated shall be provided with a source capture system that connects directly to the motor vehicle exhaust systems.”


A true diesel exhaust source capture system is the most effective way to capture exhaust gases and airborne particulates.

Systems that act like an extension of a vehicle’s exhaust system tailpipe and send exhaust to the outdoors, like the ones offered by Plymovent and others, work best. They minimize the amount of air that needs to be removed, thereby reducing the total investment in air handling equipment and reducing the total energy consumption.

In addition, capture systems should offer a timer that runs the exhaust fan after a vehicle’s engine is shut down, so it captures downstream gases and particulate matter and completely evacuates the source capture system before shutting down.

Even with the use of diesel particulate filters (DPF) on newer fire apparatus since 2007, several studies indicate that harmful gases, chemicals and ultra-fine particles (UFP) are still being emitted from these vehicles (references to these studies available upon request from Plymovent).

That means exhaust gases and UFP continue downstream through the exhaust system, so source-capture systems seal the tailpipe to the outdoors and act as essential safeguards.

Diesel engine exhaust emissions expose firefighters to health risks, from cancer to cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke. Departments should invest in a NFPA-recommended source-capture hose system today to safeguard staff from toxic exposures.

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