Firefighters risk their lives every day to protect lives and property. Although heat stress, smoke and fire take many lives, cancer has emerged as the silent killer. For our brave first responders, personal equipment once designed to protect may actually be hiding the assassins.
For years, dirty gear was thought to be a badge of honor or may have become synonymous with aggressive firefighting. Today’s firefighters need to know the hidden health risks associated with traditional methods and how they can begin to protect themselves.
According to studies led by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a direct correlation exists between firefighting and cancer. NIOSH researchers studied cancers and cancer deaths among almost 30,000 firefighters from the Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco fire departments. They found that the rate of mesothelioma was two times greater among the group of firefighters in the study than it was in the U.S. population as a whole. According to the researchers, the findings are likely associated with exposure to asbestos, a cause of mesothelioma. In addition, researchers found that firefighters are often exposed to contaminants such as benzene and formaldehyde, which can also lead to cancer.
These and other contaminants are prevalent in and around the fire ground, especially during overhaul. Firefighters routinely come into contact with hazardous substances found in soot that become trapped within materials, soiling turnout kits and accessories. Absorption of dangerous chemicals and contaminates from wearing inadequately cleaned PPE or by using PPE that ineffectively blocks carcinogenic particulates from contacting the skin are some of the largest health and safety risks firefighters face. Consequently, many of the hazardous substances linked to health risks are also carried away from the scene via firefighters’ PPE and undergarments, potentially exposing fellow firefighters or family members to risks. Firefighters should meticulously wash their entire body and properly clean PPE ensembles and components after every “working call” to remove soot and other toxic residues. In an effort to reduce the transfer risk of dangerous particles, some firefighters have found baby wipes or rescue wipes as effective on-scene cleaning agents to remove as much soot as possible from their head, neck, jaw, throat and underarms.
What else is being done? More manufacturers are designing PPE with particulate barrier protection as further research and understanding of these health challenges are becoming available. Turnout kits, boots and fire hoods that reduce firefighters’ exposure to hazardous particles are now readily available.
Breathability and heat stress were primary concerns for not incorporating a traditional moisture barrier within firefighting hoods. Realizing the need for a solution, PGI developed Cobra BarriAire Gold Hoods which block over 95% of particles between 0.1 and 1.0 microns in size in all critical areas of the head and neck (as identified by NFPA). Penetration of dangerous particulates to the skin is substantially eliminated, minimizing the chance of toxic carcinogens being absorbed into one’s body. BarriAire Gold Hoods also are extremely breathable, allowing body heat to escape around the head and neck, reducing the likelihood of heat stress.
Current EN Standard, EN 13911:2017 Protective Clothing for Firefighters, does not include a particulate blocking option, testing, or requirement. However, NFPA 1971 Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, 2018 Edition, added optional requirements for particulate barrier protective hoods. Stating that, “Particulate blocking layer principally inhibits the ingression of particles dispersed in the air. Hood composite materials that incorporate a particulate blocking layer, require the Particulate Blocking Test, and shall have a particulate filtration efficiency of 90% or greater for each particulate size from 0.1 to 1.0 microns.”
The goal here is improved health and safety for all firefighters. While the journey towards this goal requires proper funding and is never fast enough, achieving this goal is non-negotiable. Firefighters deserve nothing less.
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