Firefighting is more dangerous than ever. It’s not just the flames firefighters face – modern fires release toxic chemicals from burning plastics, treated furniture, and industrial materials.

Invisible hazards, like cancers, threaten firefighters’ lives, causing immediate health issues and shockingly contributing to 66% of the career firefighter line-of-duty deaths. While we can’t eliminate exposure, there are critical steps to minimize the risks. Proactive measures can significantly reduce the toxins and carcinogens firefighters absorb on the ground.

This blog post will discuss essential practices that empower you to protect your health during and after every call. 

Understanding Hidden Chemical Hazards on the Job

Dr. Anna Stec, a professor of fire chemistry and toxicity, conducted a revealing study. Her research found that the mix of toxic chemicals and carcinogens, like benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and toluene, are likely to increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, and lung disease among firefighters.

Her study analyzed over 600 mortality records from male firefighters. The results showed an increase in cancer of the esophagus and digestive organs, suggesting a significant link to accidental ingestion. Firefighters likely ingest these toxins when eating food with contaminated hands.

It’s not just smoke that poses a danger. Many older firefighting foams, called aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals build up in the body and have been linked to severe health problems.

AFFF firefighting foam was developed in the 1970s through a collaboration between 3M and the U.S. Navy. Unfortunately, it was later discovered that the foam’s PFAS chemicals can cause severe health issues, such as cancer, birth defects, increased cholesterol levels, and more.

Recognizing these dangers, firefighters and their families have filed numerous AFFF lawsuits. These lawsuits hold manufacturers like 3M and other responsible parties accountable for misrepresenting the product’s safety. As of April 1st, 2024, a staggering 7,738 lawsuits are awaiting consolidation, marking a significant increase from the previous month.

According to TruLaw, current lawsuits center on the allegation that AFFF exposure causes multiple life-threatening health issues. Firefighters, whose prolonged exposure to AFFF helped bring this danger to light, have been essential in holding manufacturers accountable.

Different government agencies are collaborating to phase out AFFF firefighting foam completely. A Congressional bill was introduced to accelerate the search for safer alternatives. Replacing the existing gear—a single set can cost upwards of $4,000—is a complex task.

However, the collective efforts of government, departments, and individuals are making a difference in eradicating toxic chemicals from the firefighting environment. 

Essential Practices to Minimize Chemical Exposure

Minimizing chemical exposure is a constant challenge for firefighters. It is like building layers of protection, the more consistent you are, the safer you’ll be. Here are some of the most powerful tools you can use:

Adopt the New Version of SCBA

Smoke may clear, but the unseen dangers linger. A firefighter’s Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) is a crucial defense against these hazards, protecting respiratory health even when the flames seem under control.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has led groundbreaking research into SCBA performance. Their studies revealed that older SCBA lenses can bubble, soften, deform, and even develop holes when exposed to high temperatures.

Drawing on this research, NIST developed an improved SCBA designed to withstand extreme heat. Today, over 1.2 million U.S. volunteer and career firefighters rely on this enhanced SCBA for excellent safety.

Use Your Gear As the First Line of Defense

In a raging fire, every second in full gear can feel like a battle. Overhaul, investigation, even the walk back to the truck – the urge to rip off your PPE and breathe freely is strong. But those extra minutes, even in the less intense moments, make a huge difference in protecting yourself from lingering chemical hazards.

Firefighter PPE isn’t just about flames. Helmets, vests, gloves, SCBA –  this gear is your first defense against harmful chemicals. It’s your identity as a firefighter.

And thanks to technology, the protection is getting better. Smart textiles, wearable electronics, and advanced materials like phase change materials (PCMs) are changing the game.

Researchers in China have even created fire suits and masks made from Janus graphene/poly(p-phenylene benzobisoxazole) (PBO) woven fabric. These incredible suits withstand temperatures over 520ºC, offering non-combustible, high-level thermal protection. Such advancements in firefighting technology have improved safety and reduced mortality rates.

Prioritize Decontamination Procedures

Dangerous chemicals cling to firefighter gear, posing a severe health risk. The longer they remain, the more your body absorbs them. Contaminated gear can spread toxins throughout the station, vehicles, and your home.

Decontamination, both at the fire scene and back at the station, is essential for breaking the chain of contamination and drastically reducing your risk. Research shows that thorough washing removes the majority of harmful chemicals. Field decontamination with soap and water can eliminate up to 85% of PAH contamination on clothing.

The moment you return from a fire, take immediate action. Remove contaminated clothes and shower thoroughly. For extra protection, use firefighter-specific wipes on exposed skin (neck, face, and hands).

Don’t Ignore Annual Medical Exams

Firefighting takes an incredible toll on your body. That’s why annual medical exams tailored to the risks of the job are essential. Think of it like a mechanic checking your engine – these exams catch problems early when they’re fixable.

Many cancers linked to firefighting take years to develop. Regular medical exams can spot warning signs long before symptoms appear. The sooner you start treatment, the better your chances of beating the disease and living a long, healthy life.

FAQs

What Does 3% AFFF Mean?

3% of AFFF means that to create the foam solution to extinguish fires, you must mix 3 gallons of AFFF concentrate with 97 gallons of water. This results in a 3% foam concentration, ideal for fighting flammable liquid fires.

What Is Class B Fire?

Class B fires involve flammable liquids, gasses, and greases. Examples of fuels include gasoline, oils, paints, solvents, and propane. These fires should never be extinguished with water, as it can cause the burning liquid to spread and make the fire worse.

How Do You Extinguish Dust Fires?

Use a specialized dry powder extinguishing agent for Class D combustible metal dust fires. Smothering the fire with dry sand or covering it entirely with a fire blanket can also be effective for small dust fires. The primary goal is to cut off the oxygen supply.

What Is the Highest Risk Factor for Firefighters?

The highest risk factor for firefighters is heart disease, accounting for nearly half of all on-duty deaths. The extreme physical exertion, exposure to heat and carbon monoxide, and the inherent stress of the job significantly increase the risk of heart attacks and other cardiac events.

Wrapping up, you chose this job because you’re brave. But true bravery isn’t just about facing flames – it’s about taking care of yourself to protect your crew and community for years to come. Wear your gear, use your SCBA, clean up on the scene and at the station, wash your skin, and get those annual checkups. These simple actions are your path to a long, healthy, and heroic future.

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