On understanding firefighter exposure to carcinogens, one must understand what is officially listed as a carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization and is the authoritative international agency on cancer causation. Occupational health experts rely on the IARC to categorize chemicals for their potential to cause cancer in humans. The “standard exposure” document lists the carcinogens commonly found in smoke. While there are many toxins, asphyxiants, and irritants in smoke, this document focuses on the carcinogens. The UL study on exposures to smoke particles is an excellent report on what combustion products are formed during fires. The exposure to PAH and benzene report shows exposures but also shows that the body absorbs agents during firefighting. This is primarily at the neck region. While the levels of PAHS and benzene may be low, the fact that they entered the body indicates the carcinogenic risk our bodies take. It may only take a small amount of agent to alter the DNA blueprint in our bodies, which causes cancer.
The cancer overview document lists the most recent studies on cancer. The main three are the LeMasters Meta-Analysis (University of Cincinnati), the NIOSH study (Daniels), and the Nordic study (Pukkala). While different methodologies were used to conduct the studies, and some common types of cancer were elevated in firefighters, what is important is that fire fighters are at an increased risk of developing cancer. As you are aware, maintaining the cleanliness of personal protective equipment (PPE) is important. Research studies have shown that soiled PPE are hazardous to firefighter’s health and can reduce the protection provided by the PPE. The recent Underwriter’s Laboratory and University of Cincinnati study entitled, “Fire Fighter Exposure to Smoke Particulates” acknowledged that smoke from residential and vehicle fires do indeed have asphyxiates, irritants, allergens, and carcinogens which may condense on PPE by leaving an oily film and smoke particulate residue. Additionally, diesel exhaust particulates are listed as carcinogenic by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer). All of these toxins can enter the body via ingestion, inhalation, or skin absorption.
NFPA 1500, FD Occupational Safety and Health Program (2013 ed.), Chapter 7, section 7.1.3 states that structural PPE shall be cleaned as specified in NFPA 1851, Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Structural Fire Fighting Protective Ensembles (2014 ed.). The purpose of NFPA 1851 is to establish a program to reduce the safety risks and the potential health risks associated with poorly maintained, contaminated, or damaged PPE. This document spells out the steps how to clean PPE properly, whether its on-scene, and/or via a washer, and to dry PPE properly. This document would be the foundation of setting up a PPE cleaning procedure. The IAFF is currently developing an educational cancer on-line course and PEP course, in which the recommendation to cleaning and decontamination of gear follows the NFPA 1851 standard. This includes the field decon at the fire scene. NFPA states that the PPE should be gently rinsed, scrubbed with a soft bristle brush, and rinsed again at the scene. No heavy scrubbing or high velocity water jets (i.e. pressure washer). Dirty gear and its contaminants can be transferred to the seats and interior of the apparatus, so it’s important to rinse off the gear. Gear can then be cleaned again, dependent on the amount of soot and dirt, via a washing machine dedicated to PPE only. You can create a policy determined by your department logistics (i.e. do members have one or two sets of gear, does each station have a washer, etc.) Even with one set of gear, the on-coming shift can wash and dry the gear, and have it ready for your next shift.
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