Look Familiar: Cancer is Killing our Firefighters
Safety gear materials currently used to protect firefighters are engineering marvels. However, these same materials absorb the many thousands of chemicals encounter on calls and hold them to be later absorbed into firefighter’s bodies. Also, the arduous work they perform increases the absorption and inhalation of these chemicals. Carcinogenic chemicals cause cancers at an alarming rate in firefighters.
Although there are thermal barriers in turnout coats and bunker pants, it does not prevent them from transferring cancer causing chemicals to the firefighter. Leather bunker boots, belts, chin straps and helmets also hold the same chemicals and penetrate the material. Worn and smoke ridden leather helmets are seldom cleaned since they are admired as a badge of honor, courage, and experience. Manufacturers routinely place cleaning instructions on safety gear, however, as stated, it is rarely done by firefighters. Moreover, many departments may only have one set of turnouts for each firefighter and may not possess the proper type of equipment to extract the carcinogens
Firefighters are often told that there is a high likelihood of them dying ten years sooner than anyone else in their age group, which is the result of the stress, environmental conditions, and dangers associated with the job, claiming more than 100 of them annually. Thousands of chemicals are used in homes and almost every facet of the commercial, industrial, and agricultural business making the calls that firefighters respond to much more dangerous. They absorb these chemicals into their bodies at a faster rate when they are working in increased temperatures through dermal absorption and respiratory inhalation. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) further recommends the use of self-contained breathing apparatus on all incidents involving Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) products in additional to fires. They also indicate that respiratory protection with particle masks and powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs) should be discontinued immediately. Research supports volatile organic compounds are inhaled at the emergency scene and fires where the heat continually increases the danger of toxic build-up in the human body. An additional white paper report by the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) agrees with NIOSH regarding cancer and provides documentation for the rates of absorption, as well as, the increase in firefighter cancers compared to the public. The document is called “Taking Action Against Cancer in the Fire Service” and was published in cooperation with Fire Chief Magazine, Morning Pride, and Honeywell.
Firefighters are twice as likely to contract cancer as anyone else in the United States. NIOSH conducted a survey of 30,000 firefighters between 1950 and 2009 who worked in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Chicago. The results of their survey concluded the similar information. Daily, firefighters continue to work in unbelievable atmospheres that propagate the opening of skin pores to allow carcinogens to leach in from contaminated personal protective equipment (PPE). The absorption rate of skin is multiplied more than 400 times by raising its temperature just five degrees. Firefighters return from calls to leave their bunkers in the apparatus room where the diesel fumes impregnate them daily, while bunkers are then taken into sleeping quarters. They are worn as duty clothes, and rarely, if ever cleaned. Add this culture and behavior with the multitude of chemicals on fires and during overhaul. Firefighters refrain from wearing SCBA’s during overhaul ( the process of finding and extinguishing any material still burning) because they are seen as being weak individuals, or it is too cumbersome to wear during the operation.
Soot is another major contributor to developing cancer in firefighters as well. A study was conducted of chimney sweeps in Great Britain who had an alarming rate of cancer. Research proved that soot is absorbed into the sweep’s skin creating many different types of cancers. The results of the study were compared to the soot that firefighters encountered and were determined to be similar. Soot has the same properties as most other combustibles of natural origin as with any other product used to heat homes. However, the soot that firefighters come in contact with at every fire and during overhaul has thousands of chemicals due to the use of polymers, toxic materials, and carcinogens from fossil fuels. Newer construction is a direct corollary to the problem since it is designed to keep the weather out. Unfortunately, the heat is kept in during fires, creating a much hotter atmosphere for the firefighter. Soot is then manufactured at an exponential rate while being continually absorbed and inhaled.
NIOSH, The Firefighters Cancer Support Network, and The International Association of Fire Chiefs all recommend cleaning PPE. Each time a firefighter goes on a call for hazardous material or fires, they should return to the firehouse and clean their gear properly. The turnouts and bunkers should be cleaned as prescribed by the manufacturer with a commercial extractor. There should be no more safety equipment in the firehouse living quarters and gear storage must be in proper lockers to prevent contamination of diesel smoke and soot or a vehicle exhaust extraction system must be installed and used. Regardless of how cool it is wearing dirty leather helmets and boots, they must also be cleaned properly and remain in compliance with the latest safety standards. All individuals entering a hazardous atmosphere shall wear a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) to protect their airway.
There are many images on the internet that depict firefighters washing engines and trucks after a fire or cleaning tools while making them ready for the next call. Each piece of equipment is inspected for damage or wear before putting it back in the exact location on the apparatus in preparation for next firefighter who may need a tool to do his or her job. These procedures are tradition and have become unwritten policy in the fire service that is never discounted or argued. Firefighters understand the importance of keeping their equipment ready for service without reservation.
Unfortunately, PPE continues to be hung in apparatus rooms, worn in the stations and used without cleaning between calls; a practice that would never happen with tools. Substantial research has proven the importance of cleaning and how it may prevent the dramatic increase in firefighter cancers. Firefighters are “equipment” as well. They are the tools used to mitigate all forms of emergencies to help the public and other public servants. When they are injured or ill, it decreases the pool of individuals able to do the job, subsequently decreasing the service available. One should consider the impact this presents locally and regionally since firefighters are moved throughout the country during master mutual aid for disasters. Therefore, it is imperative that turnouts be cleaned as a matter of current written standard 1851 by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and enforced in written policy by NIOSH.