Future of firefighter cancer research is in the couch

Logic predicts a decline in firefighter cancer, but what tomorrow's furniture is made of remains a wildcard

There is little doubt in the scientific literature that there is a relationship between firefighting and several types of a cancer. Obviously, cancer-causing particles are present in the smoke from fires and ultrafine particles have been found in the air even after the smoke has cleared.

Research is suggesting that carcinogens also are entering the body in other ways including through skin absorption and the eyes. Tests of firefighter equipment like bunker gear, gloves and hoods have shown that particulates often cling to the materials long after the fire is out.

Given these risks, it is not surprising that the incidents of certain types of cancer are so high.

What is less clear is how the changes in fire service practices, the safety culture and the evolving fire environment will affect cancer risks for firefighters in the future.

Some speculate that rates of cancers should decline due to the introduction of SCBAs 50 years ago and its increasing use in fires and during overhaul. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NIOSH report that even firefighters who wear their SCBA correctly register chemical exposures, which highlights the importance of using the SCBA for as long as possible on the fireground.

Rates may fall
As cancer has received more attention by the fire service, other practices also may be evolving. Firefighters are being encouraged to wash their gear more often, keep bunker gear out of living areas, not transport their dirty gear inside their cars, wash their hoods regularly, and shower as soon as returning to the firehouse.

The decreasing rates of tobacco use among firefighters nationally, which were once extremely high, are lower than ever, suggests rates of cancer should be dropping.

What is less clear is what risks firefighters face today compared to the past and what impact those will have on cancer rates. Quick checks of UL's website or YouTube provide a variety of examples of the changing fire environment.

Modern structures, building materials and furniture materials lead to fires that flashover eight times faster than fires of 50 years ago. There is no doubt that today's firefighters are fighting a different fire than they would have in the past. What is in doubt is exactly what risks those fires are presenting beyond their burning faster and hotter.

Good chemicals gone bad
Testing at Duke University in 2012 found that 85 percent of the couches they tested had been treated with some kind of flame retardants identified as potentially toxic. Example chemicals were chlorinated Tris, which was banned from baby pajamas in the late 1970s, and pentaBDE, which is now globally banned due to its toxicity.

Flame retardants became wide spread after California instituted flammability standards that required furniture sold in the state to withstand a 12 minute flame without igniting.

While there has been wide concern about the negative impact of exposure to chemicals in the home from this furniture, less attention has been paid to the negative health effects of the same furniture when it is burning. In studies of lab-based live burns of a standard room and contents, UL found that several carcinogens were produced including benzene, chromium, polcyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and formaldehyde.

On the horizon, new materials are being tested and used for furniture. In an effort to reduce the amount of petroleum in furniture materials, some next generation furniture is being made with soybean oil.  

The product is considered more "green" than traditional petroleum products used for foam. While the environmental impact of soybean oil may be better than alternatives, it remains unclear what the risk to firefighters may be when facing them in a fire.

The emerging evidence about the risks of the modern fireground reinforces the need for vigilance related to cancer risk. As always, firefighters should be conservative with their use of SCBAs both during the fire and overhaul wearing the equipment as long as possible to avoid exposure.

Cleaning gear and equipment also is important to reduce skin exposure. While the risks of modern furniture are not yet fully understood, the need to protect against them is.

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