Reducing Cancer Among Firefighters Through Clean Turnout Gear

by | Dec 22, 2021

With Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month right around the corner in January, we thought it would be appropriate to raise awareness about ongoing research that is taking place around the world with regards to firefighting and cancer. While many of us are aware of the research studies happening here in the US, we wanted to discuss research that is taking place across the pond in the UK. 

Cancer among firefighters is not just happening in our country, it is happening worldwide and the research taking place in other countries can greatly help us have a better understanding of the risks, impacts, and potential ways to reduce exposure. As firefighters we all know someone who has passed away from cancer or is currently battling cancer. It is our job to raise the awareness needed to make impactful changes that can help protect generations of firefighters and families.

In England, the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) has been funding research by Professor Anna Stec at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) to better understand the connection between fire contaminants and cancer. UCLan recently put out a paper, “Best Practice Report For Minimising Firefighters’ Exposure to Toxic Fire Effluents”, outlining their findings and providing a detailed approach to minimizing exposure to harmful toxins. 

Let’s dive right into the findings from Professor Anna Stec and her team:

    • Firefighters are 4X more likely to get cancer than the average working person
    • Toxic contaminants are inhaled, ingested, and absorbed through the skin
    • Skin absorption of contaminants is increased 400% as body temperature increases

Professor Stec and her team analyzed over 1,000 collected samples from fire and rescue service stations in the UK and surveyed more than 10,000 firefighters and analyzed the decon practices implemented by fire stations around the world.

While some of the research focuses on the chemicals firefighters are exposed to and inhale directly at the scene of a fire, much of the research focuses on the harmful chemicals that attach themselves to firefighter bunker gear.

As the report highlights, the most effective way to minimize exposure to cancerous chemicals is through proper turnout gear handling and cleaning. Since we cannot control what chemicals we come in contact with during a fire, we must control what chemicals we come in contact with after a fire. By following strict guidelines around proper turnout gear decontamination, we can greatly reduce the amount of exposure firefighters face throughout their lives. 

“PPE should be clean and should be thoroughly decontaminated after every incident to avoid a build-up of toxic contaminants. PPE should be inspected for wear and damage on a regular basis, and replaced as necessary.”

The report suggests properly decontaminating turnout gear after each major exposure, citing dermal absorption as a major pathway for contaminants to enter the body. Dermal absorption can take place when contaminated turnout gear comes in contact with the skin, this can be especially dangerous when it takes place during a fire. As mentioned earlier, you absorb up to 400% more contaminants when your body temperature increases. This fact alone should scare us all into entering every fire with the cleanest set of turnout gear available.

While wiping down surfaces of our turnout gear is beneficial, it only treats the surface contamination and does not protect against potential permeation. As stated in the study “Permeation of contaminants occurs when contaminants are absorbed into a material.” Because of the longevity of turnout gear, prolonged and repeated exposure to chemicals can cause permeation. Our biggest defense to permeation is proper advanced decontamination of the turnout gear. By treating the gear with specialized detergents and utilizing industry specific cleaning machines, we are able to rid the gear of any chemicals that have been absorbed into the materials. Because permeation is one of the biggest pathways to exposure, we must understand that performing advanced cleaning is the only way to properly combat these cancerous chemicals from ever entering our bodies.

The report also mentions, “when PPE or equipment becomes contaminated it loses its efficacy at protecting firefighters against exposure to toxic fire effluents. In fact, contaminated PPE may even increase the dose of toxic fire effluents firefighters are exposed to”. As firefighters we rely on our gear to perform, we rely on it to help save lives. By entering a fire with contaminated turnout gear we are going in with faulty equipment that can no longer do the job it was made for, protecting us.

We encourage everyone to go read the full report that Professor Anna Stec and her team published. There are a lot more compelling findings within the report that might just make you rethink how to properly manage and clean bunker gear. 

It has become abundantly clear that firefighters have an increased risk of being diagnosed with cancer due to exposure to harmful carcinogens, now we must focus on what can be done to reduce exposure to these cancerous chemicals. As much of the study points out, the one thing we can control that will have a direct impact on our exposure levels is how we handle and clean contaminated turnout gear.

At RedLine, we have created a mobile gear cleaning service that focuses on providing the fastest and best decontamination in the industry. By providing onsite gear cleaning, we are able to help fire stations across the country minimize their exposure to dirty gear by performing cleanings directly at the scene of a fire or directly at a fire station. If you are properly handling your gear after an incident and separating contaminated gear from the rest of your equipment and personnel, your exposure to contaminated gear is greatly reduced post incident when using our services. 

As a leader in turnout gear decontamination, we are more than happy to discuss ways your station can minimize exposure to these chemicals and build a plan to properly manage and clean your PPE.