Firefighters and Cancer: Publications Highlight Firefighters’ Chemical Exposures

Firefighters conduct a training fire at an acquired structure

Above, firefighters conduct a training fire at an acquired structure. Photo by Tim Olk.

Several recently published articles detail firefighters’ exposure to hydrocarbons and other substances during fire operations. Dr. Kenneth Fent and his colleagues just published three articles from collaborative research with the Illinois Fire Service Institute and Underwriters Laboratories. These articles are open access and can be downloaded below.

Firefighters’ absorption of PAHs and VOCs during controlled residential fires by job assignment and fire attack tactic:

In the above study in the journal Nature, Dr. Fent and his colleagues 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. This was undertaken to better understand the absorption of combustion byproducts during firefighting.

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.

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.

Read more HERE.

Understanding airborne contaminants produced by different fuel packages during training fires:

Fire training may expose firefighters and instructors to hazardous airborne chemicals that vary by the training fuel. Kenneth W. Fent, Alexander Mayer ORCID Icon, Stephen Bertke, Steve Kerber, Denise Smith, and Gavin P. Horn conducted area and personal air sampling during three instructional scenarios per day involving the burning of two types (designated as alpha and bravo) of oriented strand board (OSB), pallet and straw, or the use of simulated smoke, over a period of 5 days. Twenty-four firefighters and ten instructors participated.

Firefighters participated in each scenario once (separated by about 48 hr) and instructors supervised three training exercise per scenarios (completed in 1 day). Personal air samples were analyzed for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and hydrogen cyanide during live-fire scenarios (excluding simulated smoke). Area air samples were analyzed for acid gases, aldehydes, isocyanates, and VOCs for all scenarios.

For the live-fire scenarios, median personal air concentrations of benzene and PAHs exceeded applicable short-term exposure limits and were higher among firefighters than instructors. When comparing results by type of fuel, personal air concentrations of benzene and PAHs were higher for bravo OSB compared to other fuels. Median area air concentrations of aldehydes and isocyanates were also highest during the bravo OSB scenario, while pallet and straw produced the highest median concentrations of certain VOCs and acid gases.

These results suggest usage of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) by both instructors and firefighters is essential during training fires to reduce potential inhalation exposure. Efforts should be taken to clean skin and clothing as soon as possible after live-fire training to limit dermal absorption as well.

Read the complete piece HERE.

Firefighters’ and instructors’ absorption of PAHs and benzene during training exercises:

Training fires may constitute a major portion of some firefighters’ occupational exposures to smoke, but the magnitude and composition of those exposures are not well understood and may vary by the type of training scenario and fuels.

To understand how structure fire training contributes to firefighters’ and instructors’ select chemical exposures, we conducted biological monitoring during exercises involving combustion of pallet and straw and oriented strand board (OSB) or the use of simulated smoke. rine was analyzed for metabolites of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and breath was analyzed for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including benzene.

Dermal absorption likely contributed to the biological levels as the respiratory route was well protected. Training academies should consider exposure risks as well as instructional objectives when selecting training exercises.

Read more HERE.


Simulated Smoke, Real Health Effects

Reducing Firefighter Health Risks Before, During, and After Incidents

Off-Gassing Contaminants from Firefighters’ Personal Protective Equipment

Evaluating Vehicle Fire Training Inhalation Hazards


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