Clean your PPE and skin post-fire to reduce chemical exposure risk

Posted: March 22, 2018

As a firefighter, you know that firefighting activities can lead to chemical contamination. But do you know what steps you can take to reduce exposures? This understanding is critical as different fireground activities have different types and levels of exposure risk. If your fire department hasn’t already done so, it needs to develop or refine its policies for decontaminating gear and skin after live fire responses to reduce the potential risk of cancer.

firefighters in smoke

In 2014, the largest cohort study to date found an increased mortality and incidence risk for all cancers among firefighters. A follow-up study one year later found further evidence that points to a causal association between the time directly engaged in live fire assignments and lung cancer and leukemia incidence. Chemicals formed as byproducts of combustion are thought to be responsible for this elevated risk but the role of contamination on personal protective equipment (PPE) or skin called for more study.

Study of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other chemicals

A study published in 20171 focused on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) for PPE surface and skin testing. PAHs may go through or around PPE or cross-transfer later from the PPE to the skin during removal. This study also looked at volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hydrocyanide (HCN) which may off-gas from contaminated gear and represent another possible exposure pathway.

In this study, three crews of twelve firefighters completed six fireground job assignments that included inside, outside and overhaul tasks. Researchers took samples of their PPE and skin exposure pre- and post-fire, as well as post-decontamination. Here’s what they found:

Research takeaways

Learn more about this research

This research article is available through our library by contacting netclrc@fema.dhs.gov. Interested readers may be able to access the article through their local library or through the publishers’ websites.

1 Fent, K., Alexander, M., Roberts, J., Robertson, S., Toennis, C., Sammons, D., Bertke, S., Kerber, S., Smith, D., Horn, G. (2017). Contamination of firefighter personal protective equipment and skin and the effectiveness of decontamination procedures. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene: Vol 14 (10), 801-814.

More information on cleaning PPE

This summary is for informational purposes only. More +
As such, the content does not reflect any official positions, policies, or guidelines on behalf of the sender, the U.S. Fire Administration, FEMA, DHS, nor any other federal agencies, departments or contracting entities. Similarly, this summary does not represent in any manner an official endorsement or relationship to any private or public companies, organizations/associations, or any authors or individuals cited or websites associated within the article.

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