As a firefighter, or as someone who aspires to be one, there is something you should strive to educate yourself on and pass onto those around you.
It’s something plenty of us know about but wish we didn’t have to acknowledge.
As firefighters we come into contact with contaminants, and because of this run an elevated risk of developing cancer.
This is a risk that cannot be avoided.
It can however be mitigated.
PAHs – What are they?
When we attend a fire, we are exposed to toxins known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). They contaminate our PPE, are absorbed into our skin, inhaled into our lungs and even ingested.
A UK study led by Professor Anna Stec at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), on firefighters’ exposure to PAHs and published in February 2018 concludes:
“The main exposure route would appear to be via skin absorption. These results suggest an urgent need to monitor exposures to firefighters in their occupational setting and conduct long-term follow-up regarding their health status.”
For decades, a dirty fire kit has symbolised hard work and the willingness to get stuck in. This ingrained culture urgently needs to change, as it serves only as an obstacle standing in the way of progress.
When we attend a fire of any kind, there are risks we must accept. But there are certain things that are within our power to mitigate these risks.
As a BA wearer entering a compartment fire, you may be exposed to extreme heat. Our fire kits are extremely effective in shielding us from heat, but they also make it difficult for our bodies to get rid of heat.
This can cause problems when it comes to thermoregulation.
Consider this alongside UCLan’s findings that skin absorption is most likely the main exposure route, as well as skin being the largest organ in the body, and it emphasises the importance of on-scene decontamination as well as showering on return to station.
We will always be exposed to risk. We will always likely breathe smoke at some point, and we will likely get covered in soot, but it’s about what we do afterwards that will make the difference. It’s not about hiding from risk or pretending it doesn’t exist, it’s about accepting, identifying, and managing the risk.
When you exit a fire, you should make every effort to decontaminate yourself as soon as possible. Some fire services now carry wet wipes on front line appliances, however there is nothing stopping you from sourcing your own.
There are several companies that market wet wipes made specifically for firefighter on-scene decontamination. I personally use Responder Wipes, a US based company passionate about improving firefighter health and well-being.
Use these wipes to remove as much soot from your face and body as soon as you can.
A study by Jennifer Leslie Ann Keir, B.Sc. at the University of Ottawa in 2017, also points to the suggestion that “dermal contact is a major route of PAH exposure”, and advises that PPE use and decontamination protocols should be investigated in order to reduce firefighters’ exposures to combustion emissions.
When it comes to decontamination, the main areas to concentrate on are your face, ears & nose (inside and out), neck, throat, jaw, arms, underarms, wrists and hands. Areas where the skin is thinner i.e. behind the ears, jaw, armpit, head, and groin are particularly vulnerable.
Clean your equipment as much as you can while on-scene and try to avoid putting contaminated gear into the cab to limit cross contamination. If possible, bag any dirty kit for the return journey. Avoid eating or drinking before washing your hands and face, as this may lead to ingestion of contaminants. Don’t store your gloves in your boots or particularly your helmet as this causes more unnecessary contamination of personal equipment.
UCLan speculated that due to the oil/grease deposited from our hair into our helmets, contaminants have a higher likelihood of transfer from the gloves to the helmets when compared with other surfaces such as a fire tunic. The results also showed that PPE is not cleaned effectively, and therefore remains contaminated prior to next use.
“A firefighter’s dirty helmet is often seen as a trophy for a job well done. Few people realise that the contamination from that fire will be running down their neck the next time they are deployed in bad weather.”
Meiko – The hidden risks of firefighting
Once back at the fire station, finish thoroughly cleaning your PPE (BA set, helmet: inside and out, boots and gloves) and equipment used at the scene, and ensure the appliance is cleaned inside and out. For more protection, wear gloves and a mask when doing so.
It’s important to launder your kit including your flash hood, after every fire, as research has also shown that kit is often contaminated despite appearing to be clean, and will continue to off-gas post incident.
Aim to shower on return to the fire station rather than waiting until you get home, as this will not only decontaminate you sooner but will avoid contaminating clean areas of the station such as offices and living areas, as well as your personal vehicle, your home and even your family.
It is also good practice to ensure separate rooms on station for clean and dirty fire kit in order to avoid further cross contamination.
A study carried out at the University of Miami using firefighters from Palm Beach County Fire Rescue; The Invisible Danger of Bunker Gear Transfer, shows how contaminants can transfer from one surface to another at an alarming rate. The study is summarised in a short video and is available online.
There are several steps we can take, and it may seem like a long process, but it is worth spending that extra bit of time to make the best effort you can to keep yourself, your colleagues and your family safe from unnecessary risk.
We should aim to improve the environment that we not only work in but live in. The easiest way to accomplish this is to make it a team effort. We’ll then get the best results from what becomes a more efficient, less time consuming process.
Unlike much of the US and Canada, firefighters in the UK are not currently protected by presumptive legislation. The death rate from cancer in firefighters under the age of 75 is reportedly up to three times higher than that of the general population.
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
C. S. Lewis
By James Meredith