Building materials which have been introduced over the last 40 years, such as engineered thermoplastics and laminated veneer lumber, have significantly contributed to the release of cancer causing agents during structure fires. In the first half of this century, homes consisted of ‘legacy’ finishings – those that were made of simple components including wood, textiles, metal, and glass. The legacy finishings of yesterday have been replaced by the synthetic materials of today, which include complex plastics, lightweight foams, industrial polymers, and chemical coatings. As a result, the firefighters now face fires that burn faster and hotter than ever before, and have been demonstrated to generate larger quantities of thick, toxic smoke. In fact, fire experts say synthetic materials create hundreds of times more smoke than organic ones and can increase toxic gasses 10-fold.
Personal Protective Equipment is Not Enough
Use of Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBAs) has become the gold standard of respiratory protection during fire ground operations. Policies mandating the use of SCBAs have been adopted by both career and volunteer departments nationwide. Studies have shown that the use of SCBAs can eliminate or significantly decrease respiratory exposure to toxic particles during firefighting, but SCBA use is not enough. Firefighters are still at risk of absorbing the toxic products of combustion through the skin. Furthermore, while SCBAs may be worn during active interior firefighting, the use of SCBAs during overhaul is less common. During overhaul, firefighters can be exposed to toxic agents through the disassembly of walls, hooking of ceilings, removal of furniture and by the off gassing of burnt or smoldering material.
The bunker gear firefighters wear today offers great enhancements over the protective gear worn by previous generations. Between SCBAs, helmets, hoods, coats, pants, boots and gloves, encapsulated firefighters are afforded great protection from the hazardous, high heat environments of structure fires. While the multiple layers of gear provide protection against thermal insult, they fail from preventing the toxic smoke and gases from seeping through and depositing soot upon the skin. The intense heat only adds to the danger of exposure to toxic chemicals – with every 5 degrees in increased body temperature, skin absorption rates can increase by as much 400%.
Risk does not end once crews leave the fire ground. As operations conclude, the soot covered gear which provided protection in the IDLH environment, begins to pose a risk to firefighters by prolonging exposure to carcinogens. Studies have confirmed that when PPE becomes coated in the toxic agents encountered during firefighting, the gear itself can continue to transfer and off gas contaminants long after the incident has ended. Furthermore, the IARC identified diesel exhaust as being associated with increased cancer risks, which means firefighters may be placed at risk before they ever leave their stations. And considering bunker gear is commonly stored in the apparatus bay near the response vehicles, the gear will continue to accumulate contaminants over time.
Common Fireground Carcinogens
Potentially cancer causing agents identified with firefighting operations include, but are not limited to:
|Asbestos*||A heat-resistant fibrous silicate mineral that can be woven into fabrics, and is used in fire-resistant and insulating materials such as brake linings|
|Arsenic||Arsenic-related compounds and alloys have been used in the manufacture of a wide variety of products including pesticides, wood preservatives, and glass products|
|Benzene*||Is found in furniture wax, and common building materials (paints, adhesives, etc.)|
|Benzopyrene*||Is generated as a result of incomplete combustion of organic materials|
|Polycyclic Hydrocarbons*||Is generated as a result of vehicle exhaust and incomplete combustion of wood or other mixed organic materials|
|Cadmium||Commonly used as a corrosion-resistant plating on steel, to color glass, and to stabilize plastics|
|Chlorophenols||Some chlorophenols are used as pesticides, in antiseptics, and can be produced during the process of bleaching wood pulp to make paper|
|Chromium||Chromium compounds are used for chrome plating, in dyes and pigments, in leather tanning, as wood preserving corrosion inhibitors and in textiles|
|Carbon Monoxide||Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless gas produced as a result of incomplete combustion|
|Dioxins*||Commonly released when items containing PVC, such as vinyl flooring, vinyl wallpaper, shower curtains, window frames, electrical equipment and Venetian blinds, are burned|
|Ethylene Oxide||Found in a variety of detergents, thickeners, solvents, and plastics|
|Formaldehyde*||Commonly found in cleaning materials and engineered wood-base material such as medium density fiberboard (MDF)|
|Glutaraldehyde||Used in the tanning process of leather, as a component in cleaning agents, and in the production of adhesives and sealants|
|Hydrogen Cyanide||Used in the manufacture of synthetic fibers|
|Orthotoluide||Used in the manufacture of more than 90 dyes and pigments and in synthetic rubbers|
|Polychlorinated Biphenyls*||Used in electrical equipment (e.g., capacitors), plasticizers, and lubricants|
|Sulfur Dioxide||Is produce by burning materials containing sulfur, such as household and personal cleaning products|
|Vinyl Chloride*||Is used to produce PVC and can be found in furniture, upholstery, wall coverings, and housewares|
|*These agents have been classified as "Carcinogenic to Humans" by either the IARC or EPA.|
Cancers Commonly Associated with Firefighting
Studies have found that firefighting is associated with an increased risk for development of:
- Bladder Cancer
- Brain Cancer
- Gastrointestinal Cancers
- Lung Cancer
- Kidney Cancer
- Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma
- Prostate Cancer
- Testicular Cancer
- Urinary Cancer
As a result, a growing number of states have adopted presumptive cancer legislation to provide firefighters with workers’ compensation benefits should they develop a cancer associated with job related exposures. There is a recognized need for additional research examining gender specific cancers for women within the fire service.