By: Mark Dowdy
We now know that it’s not fighting fire where we are most often exposing ourselves to cancer-causing carcinogens, but rather what we are doing (or not doing) immediately after exiting the fire ground that is creating the greatest risk of exposure. Without proper PPE cleaning and more importantly immediate decontamination, these carcinogens are ending up on the firefighter’s bunker gear, in the fire apparatus, tracked through the firehouse, and even carried to our vehicles and homes. Ultimately, we quite possibly also expose our families our families to these dangerous toxins.
Dirty turnout gear in the not-so-distant past was a badge of honor. Today, it is a significant reason why firefighters have nearly 100% higher risk of developing some form of cancer. Thankfully, the fire service as a whole has a much better understanding of the importance of cleaning PPE post-fire exposure. Unfortunately, cleaning your PPE at the end of your shift after that exposure isn’t enough. We must be implementing procedures to decontaminate each individual exiting that fire before entering rehab.
The inhalation hazard of breathing in smoke may be your first risk, but as you enter rehab to grab a drink and a snack, your next risk is ingesting these carcinogens. Carcinogens are a product of EVERY FIRE and come to rest on every part of your PPE. Some can be seen, but more often than not, these particles are minute and invisible to the naked eye. While inhalation and ingestion often are felt immediately by a cough or bad taste in your mouth, the absorption of these toxins is the scariest of all routes into your body, because you don’t even realize it’s happening. The areas of our bodies at highest risk for absorption are the groin area, jaw, and neck areas. Our elevated body temperatures exiting a fire are compounding these absorption rates. Some studies show that for every 5% increase in skin temperature, your body’s absorption rate increases by 400%.
Let’s be honest, are we applying Risk vs. Reward appropriately as it relates to the following items or are we
“rolling the dice” because “surely IT won’t get me”:
As firefighters, we do whatever it takes to rescue others. Are you willing to take the required extra steps to reduce your risk of becoming a cancer statistic dramatically?