A lingering threat to the health of a firefighter


HAGERSTOWN, Maryland – Exiting the burning house, smoke still billowing from the second floor windows, firefighters doff their helmets, gloves and other gear. The gear is covered in black soot and ash. The risk of death, injury or illness doesn’t stop… a silent threat lingers on the gear designed to save a firefighters life.

Studies performed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publication examining firefighter exposure to potential carcinogens and other hazardous materials.

The study shows that the neck area is one of the most likely regions to become contaminated. The study continued that in reality a firefighter is more likely to be exposed to hazardous materials during a structure fire than during a hazardous materials incident.

“Fires create hazardous gases that are released in to the air and are present even after the fire is extinguished,” Washington County Special Operations Chief John Bentley said. “These carcinogens can get trapped (on your skin, clothing and gear.)

Bentley echoed studies that show carbon-based soot particles absorb many of these vapors, holding them in place on surfaces including firefighter clothing and skin. These particles can move to the surrounding environment and come in contact with the firefighter.

“No longer do we sleep with gear in the bunkroom or any living quarters,” Bentley said. “Gear stays in the engine bay or a specially designed gear room that is well ventilated.”

Dr. Robert Flint, a local emergency department physician and firefighter in Washington County, Maryland said that many departments have created “gear” rooms so that employees and volunteers are not constantly walking by the gear.

“(Contaminated gear) should not be left or transported in your vehicle…it is terrible for all the occupants, especially children,” Flint said.

When gear is left in a vehicle off gassing is possible.

Off gassing allows harmful materials to be released from an object back into the air, Flint said.

The National Fire Protection Association is a global, nonprofit organization established in 1896, devoted to eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards. This agency has recommendations and standards for fire firefighting operations, specifically the topic of turnout gear, its maintenance and storage.

The NFPA 1851 standard, first issued in 2001, was developed to allow firefighters to safety perform their jobs and has been updated several times over the years focusing on selection, inspection, cleaning, repairing, storing, testing and retiring personal protective equipment, more commonly known as “turnout gear.”

The NFPA 1851 standard recommends that gear:

  • Not be stored in direct sunlight or exposed to direct sunlight while not being worn
  • cleaned and dried before storage
  • not to be storied in an airtight container unless new and unused
  • not to be stored below -25 degrees or above 180 degrees
  • Shall not be stored or transported in compartments or trunks with sharp objects
  • Not stored with contaminants
  • Should not be folded, hung only
  • Should never be stored in living quarters with personal belongings
  • Should never be transported in the passenger compartment of a vehicle
  • Must be clean, dry and well ventilated when stored

For these reasons, larger counties in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, through grants were able to purchase two sets of gear for their firefighters, Bentley said.

“Larger counties issue firefighters two sets of turnout gear so that gear can be cleaned regular (or after a fire),” Bentley said. “It is my strong recommendation that gear is cleaned at minimum once a year.”

Bentley acknowledged that doing this can potentially, temporarily limit the amount of firefighters a station may have because turnout gear is being cleaned, the cost associated with purchasing each firefighter two sets of gear and the cleaning.

“A lot of research is coming out with fires in older buildings and the substances inside, especially older industrial buildings,” Washington County Division of Emergency Services Medical Director Dr. Janelle Martin said in a phone interview. “There needs to be a lot more research (conducted).”

Martin says firefighter can be exposed to a wide array of toxins with many variables.

The International Association of Fire Firefighters reports that firefighters may experience occupational exposure to gases, chemicals, particulate and other substances with potentially damaging short and long term effects on the respiratory systems. Firefighters may be exposed to toxicants and respiratory tract irritants including sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, phosgene, nitrogen oxides, aldehydes, and particulate.

The IAFF Department of Health and Safety believes that firefighters are at an increased risk for developing acute lung disease during the course of firefighting work. There may also be an increased risk of chronic lung disease in firefighters; however, more research on chronic exposure is needed.

“Firefighter cancer rates have increased over the last 20-25 years, especially cancers of the head and neck,” Flint added.

Officials agree that after fires or as soon as possible firefighters should remove gear for cleaning and shower to remove the toxins and chemicals from the skin. They also recommend that if it can be avoided to not wear turnout gear in the back of ambulances, in other treatment areas including the emergency room and limit the amount of people you come in contact with, which will limit the amount of people exposed.

Martin says that there are definitely issues we may not have paid attention to in the past, but with continued research, education and holding fire departments to standards that are evidence based it will ensure the health and safety of emergency service workers.

Todd Bowman is a journalist and social media anchor. He is also a paramedic/firefighter in Western Maryland. Follow him on Twitter @todd_bowman87.

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