If there is much good news at all regarding firefighters and cancer, it may be that firefighters may have a lower incidence of lung cancer in some studies when compared to the general population. If this holds in the current studies that are underway, it may be due to restrictions on the use of tobacco products and to the increased use of SCBA compared to past practices.
Following the lungs however, the skin is the body’s second largest organ (in area) and it is highly absorptive. Some areas of skin are more permeable than others, specifically the face, the angle of the jaw, the neck and throat and the groin. Skin’s permeability increases with temperature and for every 5° increase in skin temperature, absorption increases 400%.
The most permeable piece of personal protective equipment is the hood. Hoods are designed to protect our head and neck from heat, but are not designed to stop skin absorption through the forehead, angle of the jaw, the neck and the throat.
Every firefighter knows that a lot of soot gets through their hoods, sits on sweaty, hot, highly permeable areas of skin, and then is rubbed into the skin as the firefighter is working. Some cancer studies are also noting that firefighters are developing far more aggressive types of cancers, such as brain cancers, at a younger age than the general population, which provides further indications that the cancer could be a result of firefighting.
Many PPE manufacturers are currently scrutinizing each piece of protective gear to determine what changes can be made to not only protect firefighters from heat, but to also reduce the amount of carcinogens that can permeate the PPE and get onto the skin.