Firefighters know that there are many more risks to their health than fire and heat exhaustion; the dangers of cancer-causing particulates have never been in sharper focus in firefighting than they are today.
Indeed, as a sector we are becoming more aware of the risks associated with exposure to carcinogens. But knowledge around the risks is not enough. Fire services must also be equipped with an understanding of how to reduce exposure to these harmful particulates, to protect their long-term health.
In this article we explore more about particulates, detailing exactly how firefighters are exposed to these carcinogens, and the different measures that should be taken to reduce exposure to harmful residuum.*
What are particulates?
Particulates, or particulate matter, are a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets. During fire suppression, firefighters are heavily exposed to particulates found in soot and smoke.
This particulate matter is thought to be one of the contributing factors to the increased risks of cancer for firefighters. In fact, The International Agency for Research on Cancer recognises soot as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning it is categorised as one of the worst carcinogens that firefighters can be exposed to.
Therefore, it’s important to understand exactly how firefighters become exposed to these particulates, and the practical steps that can reduce the risk of exposure.
How are firefighters exposed?
Studies have found that particulates are most likely to enter a firefighter’s body through the skin, although they can also be breathed in.
In particular, there is one major area of vulnerability for firefighters – the head and neck. Standard firefighting kit protects from particulates by catching them on the outside of the three layers of a firefighting suit, whilst a membrane inside the garments means the particulates can’t penetrate through to get on to the skin, and potentially into a firefighter’s bloodstream. However, if firefighters wear their kit and just a helmet and standard flash hood, their face and neck is left exposed without any protection from the soot and smoke which carries particulates.
Other risks facing firefighters can actually take place after an incident, or during decontamination, as certain actions can exposure firefighters to particulates. Simple, seemingly innocuous actions, such as storing dirty gloves inside a helmet, can pose a risk, as particulates from the glove could transfer into the helmet and eventually onto a firefighter’s head, which in turn creates a risk they will be transferred to the bloodstream.
How to reduce firefighters’ exposure to particulates
Reducing exposure to particulates is critical, because they can cling to protective kit and can get into the bloodstream. There are several steps that firefighters can take to protect themselves from particulates, which include things to do before, during, and after an incident.
1. Choose PPE designed to protect against particulates
Research by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) suggests that fire contaminants on UK firefighters’ personal protective equipment (PPE) might have a link to higher cancer occurrences. Therefore, it’s crucial that firefighters are equipped with top-of-the-range PPE garments, and in particular fire hoods, that have been specifically designed to prevent these particulates from penetrating through the material and coming into contact with a firefighter’s skin.
As mentioned previously, the head and neck are major areas that leave firefighters vulnerable to exposure. Therefore, it’s crucial to invest in specific particulate hoods, which cover the neck and head to ensure that there is maximum protection. It’s also vital that these hoods fit snugly under the helmet so firefighters can work efficiently in comfort.
When purchasing particulate hoods, it’s important to look for new garment technology, such as Nomex® Nano Flex, which tackles the risks caused by cancer-causing particulates and averages 95%-98% particulate filtration, which actually improves with repeated washes.
2. On-scene decontamination
Actions after the incident can also make a big impact on a firefighter’s potential exposure to particulates. In fact, firefighters are at greatest risk of contamination after an incident – contaminants can come into contact with the skin or be inhaled as PPE and kit is removed.
Therefore, firefighters need to be practised at personal decontamination immediately after leaving a hazardous area. Getting out of dirty kit as soon as possible, preferably in a clean area designated for removing PPE, is important. They must also be extremely vigilant to ensure they avoid putting their gloves in their helmet for storage.
A good, safe practice would be for firefighters to wear a dust mask and disposable gloves, to help remove PPE safely, avoiding contact with exposed skin. They should also take time to cleanse the most vulnerable areas of the skin – the hands, face, neck and throat, immediately after removing their protective garments; having skin decontamination wipes readily available on scene helps to limit the amount of time a firefighter’s skin may be in contact with particulates.
A successful decontamination should include the following steps:
- Always use at least a filter mask when entering an area where there has been a fire
- Always use gloves, ensuring no skin is ever left exposed
- Have a colleague hose you down with water before you take any of your turnout gear off
- Get help taking your gloves off, and put on surgical gloves before handling any of your turnout gear
- Ensure all gear is professionally washed after each operation involving fire, or aftermaths of a fire
- Clean your mask, tubes and helmet with a brush in warm, soapy water
- Always finish with a shower to wash the skin of any particles that may be remaining. Make sure to wash with cool water initially, so that the pores of your skin remain closed, to limit skin absorption
3. Make use of an experienced laundry service
Traditionally, a smoky fire suit was a badge of honour for firefighters. However, with knowledge levels around harmful particulates ever increasing, so too is the understanding that garments must be frequently washed to reduce risk.
Fire suits need to be properly laundered to ensure they are cleaned of any harmful substances, such as particulates, chemicals and asbestos. There is a British Standard for cleaning firefighting kit – BS8617:2019 – which specifies how and how often the kit should be laundered and maintained.
While firesuits may look like a simple piece of fabric, these are made up of multiple layers of fabric, with each layer containing a different type of technology. Therefore it’s crucially important that these suits are professionally laundered, to ensure their protective qualities are maintained, as well as harmful particulates being removed safely.
Contracting a regular cleaning service with an industrial laundry, either directly or through your PPE supplier, can ensure your team’s garments are cleaned in a safe and effective manner.
It’s also important that all dirty fabrics are bagged before sent to wash, to avoid spreading contaminants in the fire engine or at the station.
4. Regular PPE inspections
Frequent cleaning and drying of a garment, as well as the inevitable stretching that accompanies every use, can impact your PPE’s lifespan. So it’s essential that PPE is inspected on a regular basis to look for any signs of wear and tear, or if it needs professional cleaning.
Fire suits should be checked for stains, damage to the fabric or seams, or unclear labelling, at the beginning of a firefighter’s shift, after heading out to any incident, and after any cleaning.
If your brigade is arranging its own professional laundry services directly, it’s also important that the laundrette checks the garments during the cleaning process.
5. PPE repairs
A firefighting suit is only as strong as its weakest seam. These suits are made up of many layers and components, and if just one aspect of the suit becomes damaged, it can compromise the protection offered by the garment.
Each layer of a fire suit has a unique purpose, and therefore even damage to just one of these layers can leave a firefighter vulnerable to certain dangers, including particulate exposure.
PPE suppliers will often offer a care and maintenance package for firefighting PPE, to provide professional repair services in a quick and easy manner for busy brigades.
Further reading: BS 8617 was published in October 2019 and gives very practical advice on particulate protection working practices.
For more information, go to www.flame-pro.com
* We understand that particulate protection is a very wide subject, in this article we are simply suggesting five practical things that can be done. The list is not exhaustive.