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Cancer Support Network

After firefighters extinguish a structure fire, they typically re-enter the building to conduct overhaul activities. During overhaul, firefighters often open up and look in the walls, ceilings, attics, and any other void space where these still-burning embers might be located. To accomplish the strenuous task of overhaul, firefighters use thermal imaging cameras (TICs), and other tools such as axes, chainsaws, and pike poles to search for hidden fire after the main body of the fire has been extinguished. 

During overhaul, there may be little or no smoke, so most firefighters remove the face piece of their SCBA (self contained breathing apparatus) and work in the environment without any respiratory protection. Firefighters falsely believe that due to the reduced amount of smoke and fire during overhaul, they are not being significantly exposed to the products of combustion. Science has proved this notion to be false. Firefighters are, in fact, routinely breathing toxic gases and being exposed to dangerous carcinogens in the post-fire environment. These products may include hydrogen cyanide (HCN), aldehydes, benzene, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PNA), and other substances. 

Recent scientific studies show that the post-fire environment may be more dangerous than firefighters realize. Based on that concept, all fire departments should have an overhaul policy that requires firefighters to wear respiratory protection throughout the overhaul phase of the fire.  The Firefighter Cancer Support Network has sample policies on its website if you need a starting place.

Cancer Support Network

Are you tracking your fire exposures? One of the most important, yet most overlooked aspects of a Cancer prevention program, is the tracking of your career fire exposures. Throughout the course of their career, firefighters are routinely exposed to numerous chemicals and carcinogens on a relatively routine basis. It’s the exposure to these by-products of combustion that increase the likelihood of a Cancer diagnosis for firefighters. Current statistics indicate that firefighters have a 9% increased risk to develop a Cancer, and a 14% increased risk of dying from a Cancer when compared to the general population.

Why is tracking your exposures important? Quite simply, it paints a picture of your career. If you were to ever receive a Cancer diagnosis, your exposure reports can be vital information to provide to your medical team, or to provide to your employer if seeking a workers compensation claim. Too many firefighters have realized the importance of keeping good records after they’ve received the diagnosis. Of course at that point, it’s oftentimes too late!

How can you track your career exposures? First, we need to understand what constitutes an exposure. Essentially, any time you come into contact with a known chemical or any fire smoke, you need to consider that an exposure. There are a few ways to track your fire exposures. Quite simply, you can start a written or electronic journal to document your exposures. To take it one step further, you can download free exposure reports from an online source, print them off and fill them out. Or, while you are searching online, you can also find fire exposure databases through various online companies that allow you to track your fire exposures using their online forms. Most of these require a small annual fee, but the online resources often outweigh the minor expense to maintain an online database.

The Firefighter Cancer Support Network is here to assist any firefighter who receives a Cancer diagnosis. All you need to do is check us out online for the most current contact information.

Tracking Firefighting Exposures

Any record of exposure is better than no record. Currently there is no national guidance for the collection and reporting of exposures to toxicants, including carcinogens or tumor-promoting agents. Exposure reporting guidelines exist for hazmat incidents, but guidelines need to be developed and implemented for exposure to chemicals, toxicants and carcinogens from incidents other than those covered by traditional hazmat guidelines. Firefighters need to change their perception and acknowledge that structure, vehicle, dumpster and even wildland fires contain the same chemicals and toxicants, sometimes in greater concentrations, than in hazmat releases and exposure records need to be maintained for all of these exposures.

Certainly the establishment and maintenance of exposure tracking systems needs to be the primary responsibility of the fire department, but each individual firefighter needs to ensure that they are also tracking their own exposures. Each firefighter should establish their own method of capturing this type of information, using personal computers, mobile devices or even index cards, if for no other reason than having a backup.

The IAFF and several state union organizations, such as the California Professional Fire Fighters, have established cancer registries and/or exposure tracking systems for their members. While some of these systems have been available for many years, utilization by individual firefighters can still be significantly enhanced as the definition of toxic and carcinogenic exposures expands to include more and more incidents. In states where cancer presumptive legislation has been implemented, having exposure records bolsters the case of the impacted firefighter as more and more cases are being challenged and existing presumptive legislation is coming under re-examination. Continue Reading →

Protective Actions Help

While concerns regarding the exposure to carcinogens are common to both career and volunteer firefighters, the volunteer and combination fire service have some specific challenges that are different and need to be addressed.

Volunteers regularly transport contaminated PPE and other gear in their personal vehicles, thereby exposing themselves and their family members to carcinogens. Because they may return home or go back to work directly after a fire, they often continue to wear their personal clothing, which will stay contaminated.

It is not acceptable to return from a medical call with blood or vomitus on our clothing and then sit back down at work or return to the dinner table at home. The same concern should be exercised after returning from a fire: gear must be cleaned, clothing must be washed and showers must be taken, before returning to work or family activities to reduce carcinogenic exposure.  Many volunteers carry their PPE in their personal vehicle, often in the trunk or even in the vehicle’s passenger compartment. Handling PPE in this manner facilitates the off-gassing of toxins and carcinogens, especially when the PPE is heated by elevated temperatures from the sun. Continue Reading →

Firefighter Cancer Update

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. Continue Reading →

Updates on Firefighter Cancer

Current research demonstrates an increased risk for a number of types of cancer among firefighters. Although most fire departments are responding to fewer fires than in the past, the amount of exposure time has increased due to the limited number of available firefighters, either due to budget cuts, staffing reductions or the availability of volunteers.

Today’s fires grow at a much more rapid rate than yesterday’s fires while exposing firefighters to significantly increased concentrations of highly carcinogenic agents. Today’s residential fires have more in common with hazardous materials events than old-fashioned house fires due to the materials now common in homes such as plastics and synthetics. Commercial and vehicle fires have highly concentrated toxicants and dumpster fires contain completely unknown substances and toxicants. Continue Reading →