The hidden risks of firefighting
Firefighters live with risks by managing them effectively but the fact that these risks include an increased rate of cancer is only now coming to the fore. There are ways and means of minimising this risk including improved hygeine on the job and the issue is now stirring lively debate worldwide.
Firefighters live dangerous lives and that’s not just because they venture into the kind of danger that most other people would choose not to experience. Aside from the inherent risk of injury or even dying in the line of duty, firefighters also have a 30% higher risk of cancer than the population average.
Raising awareness among the firefighting community that “only a clean firefighter is a good firefighter” is a very difficult task. The public admire the image of a soot covered hero and they expect the helmet and BA masks in particular to look as grimy as possible showing that the firefighter was right in the thick of the action. The next time a firefighter wears that helmet and BA mask in wet weather all that soot will end up running down their neck and penetrate the skin. At the scene of a fire, firefighters are faced with lethal compounds otherwise known as carcinogens or cancer causing agents which include benzene, chloroform, soot, styrene and formaldehyde. These can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin at the scene of a fire.
Scientists in Germany will soon be embarking on a pilot study to determine whether the hazardous substances that contaminate firefighters helmets, BA masks, protective clothing, shoes and other equipment could be responsible for this increased risk. “It’s high time we got some clarity on this issue” says Marcus Batge, a 47 year old full-time firefighter who is responsible for occupational health & safety at the German firefighters trade association (BvFw) in Hamburg. The fact that the pilot study was designed by the German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV) body in collaboration with the Institute for Occupational and Maritime Medicine is something that Batge sees as a particularly encouraging. “They will be using a biomonitoring system for the Hamburg firefighters which will take urine samples, skin swab samples and blood samples after each incident.” Marcus Batge knows exactly how tough conditions can sometimes be. “When you are fighting a fire your body temperature can climb to 38° or even 39°. Your body tries to cool itself down by opening the pores of the skin. That provides perfect access for just about any hazardous substance including soot, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and benzene to enter the body.”
To minimise the risk of harmful substances entering a firefighters body from his or hers PPE, intense cleaning and decontamination of BA equipment is absolutely essential. German company Meiko specialise in the manufacture of BA cleaning equipment with their range of TopClean M cleaning and decontamination machines. The Top Clean M is accredited by DEKRA and also approved by all major mask manufacturers for use with their products. Draeger for example, have come a long way from the masks of the early 20th century to their FPS7000 full-face mask. Nowadays, the company uses synthetic materials such as EPDM instead of leather. EPDM is an ethylene propylene diene terpolymer a kind of synthetic rubber. Draeger hasn’t abandoned it’s tried and tested models from previous years. The Panorama full-face mask for example has been available since 1964 and is still in use with the fire industry.
The whole mask evolution has been hugely promoted by the NFPA in the USA. The not-for-profit organisation has been active in the field of fire protection since 1896 and boasts over 79,000 members around the globe who all share a genuine concern for firefighter safety. Draeger actively specialise in ensuring that it’s equipment can be successfully and professionally managed and maintained to ensure it works perfectly in real-life conditions. This is a requisite that Draeger share with Offenburg based Meiko. A number of of BA equipment rooms at German, Swiss, French and UK fire departments have now installed the TopClean M system from Meiko which are used to clean breathing apparatus sets including masks. “We got in touch with Draeger and all the other mask manufacturers right from the start because the market quickly told us that this was an important step. Demand for the TopClean M was huge” says Manuel Paulat a Meiko expert who specialises in products for cleaning and disinfecting BA equipment.
For more information, go to www.meiko.de