Firefighters’ Absorption of PAHs and VOCs During Controlled Residential Fires by Job Assignment and Fire Attack Tactic


To better understand the absorption of combustion byproducts during firefighting, we performed biological monitoring (breath and urine) on firefighters who responded to controlled residential fires and examined the results by job assignment and fire attack tactic. Urine was analyzed for metabolites of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and breath was analyzed for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including benzene. Median concentrations of PAH metabolites in urine increased from pre-firefighting to 3-h post firefighting for all job assignments. This change was greatest for firefighters assigned to attack and search with 2.3, 5.6, 3.9, and 1.4-fold median increases in pyrene, phenanthrene, naphthalene, and fluorene metabolites. Median exhaled breath concentrations of benzene increased 2-fold for attack and search firefighters (p < 0.01) and 1.4-fold for outside vent firefighters (p = 0.02). Compared to interior attack, transitional attack resulted in 50% less uptake of pyrene (p = 0.09), 36% less uptake phenanthrene (p = 0.052), and 20% less uptake of fluorene (p < 0.01). Dermal absorption likely contributed to firefighters’ exposures in this study. Firefighters’ exposures will vary by job assignment and can be reduced by employing a transitional fire attack when feasible.



Structure fires typically involve furnishings and other items made of both natural and synthetic materials. These fires can produce hundreds of combustion byproducts, including benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), acid gases, hydrogen cyanide, aldehydes, inorganic gases, and halogenated compounds [1,2,3,4,5]. Several of these compounds (e.g., benzene, benzo[a]pyrene, formaldehyde) are known or suspected human carcinogens [6,7,8]. Epidemiology studies suggest that firefighters have increased risk for numerous types of cancer [9,10,11,12,13] and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified occupational exposure as a firefighter to be possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B) [14]. Firefighters’ exposure to chemical carcinogens, particularly those associated with byproducts of combustion, has been postulated as a contributor to this increased risk [9].

Firefighters usually use self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) when conducting interior operations like fire attack (i.e., suppressing the seat of the fire) or search and rescue. However, firefighters may not always wear SCBA during exterior operations, such as incident command (i.e., directing and supervising the response), pump operation, or outside ventilation (i.e., opening walls or roof in an attempt to clear smoke from the structure). In addition, firefighters may remove SCBA during overhaul, which is the period of the response after fire suppression when firefighters search for smoldering items inside the structure. Although the inhalation route is protected by use of SCBA, the potential for dermal exposure still exists. Studies have found PAH particulates under firefighters’ protective ensembles (i.e., turnout gear) and contaminating the skin following fire responses [15,16,17,18,19,20] and PAHs can be readily absorbed through skin [21,22,23,24].

While many studies on firefighters have focused on PAHs and other solid-phase contaminants, few studies have examined the penetration of vapors into the interior space of the turnout gear. Wingfors et al. [15] found that naphthalene, the most volatile PAH, more readily penetrated the protective barriers of turnout gear than less volatile PAHs. Other volatile chemicals like benzene may also penetrate turnout gear. One component of turnout gear that likely provides very little attenuation for vapors is the hood, which is typically made of a couple layers of porous fabric, such as Nomex® (DuPont, Wilmington, DE).

Exposure of the neck to chemicals during firefighting could contribute to total body burden. Chemicals that deposit onto skin generally penetrate thin skin (e.g., neck) faster than thick skin (e.g., plantar foot arch) [23, 25, 26]. While non- or semi-volatile compounds can readily deposit onto skin, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) typically remain in vapor phase. However, small amounts of VOCs can partition to solid phase and condense to the skin where they may be available for biological uptake. For example, up to 1% of benzene vapor may be absorbed directly through skin [27,28,29]. Therefore, firefighters could absorb VOCs into their bodies even when wearing SCBA and turnout gear.

Several studies have documented increased excretion of PAH and/or benzene metabolites in urine or breath following structural firefighting [15, 16, 18, 30,31,32]. In many of these studies, both dermal and inhalation routes could have contributed to the systemic levels. However, in our previous study that involved a room and contents fire [18], firefighters wore their SCBA throughout the exercise. Firefighters in this study showed statistically significant increases in exhaled breath concentrations of benzene, styrene, and naphthalene and increased excretion of PAH metabolites following firefighting [18, 33]. The PAH metabolites were measured using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), which is not specific, but correlates well (r = 0.89) with the sum of metabolites of four PAHs (naphthalene, fluorene, phenanthrene, and pyrene) measured by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry in exposed workers’ urine [34]. Other studies of firefighters have documented post-fire increases in metabolites of phenanthrene, fluorene, and pyrene [15, 16].

These past studies indicate that firefighters’ will absorb toxic compounds into their bodies during live fire responses. While studies exploring biological levels of these compounds by job assignment are lacking, our group recently reported that firefighters assigned to fire attack and search and rescue operations had significantly higher personal air concentrations of total PAHs and benzene and higher levels of PAHs on their hands than firefighters assigned to other jobs (e.g., overhaul, command, outside ventilation) [5, 20]. Exposures could also vary by attack tactic. Two types of tactics that may be used for suppression of structural fires are: (1) interior attack and (2) transitional attack. During interior attack, firefighters enter the structure and immediately search for and apply water to the fire. In transitional attack, firefighters attempt to get water on the fire as soon as possible by identifying a window or other opening near the fire and applying water from outside the structure before transitioning to interior attack. To our knowledge, no studies have examined the exposures experienced by firefighters employing different tactics.

The purpose of this study was to investigate the biological uptake of PAHs and VOCs (i.e., benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes) using urine and breath samples, respectively, following controlled residential fire responses and to compare the levels by job assignment and fire attack tactic. Urinary concentrations of PAH metabolites were quantified using both ELISA and mass spectrometry, and the results compared. The findings in this paper may be useful to the fire service in understanding firefighters’ systemic exposures to combustion byproducts and identifying ways to reduce those exposures.


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