Fairfax Co. searching for ways to reduce firefighter exposure to carcinogens

A study is underway to determine ways to lower firefighters risks of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals encountered while battling fires.

Carcinogens can be clingy.

The same protective equipment helping firefighters breathe and keep them protected from flames and heat also allows harmful chemicals and particulate by-products of fires to linger, creating opportunity for further exposure.

To figure out ways to reduce contact, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue and the National Fire Protection Association Research Foundation, recently completed the first phase of a four-phase contamination and cleaning study; with a focus on firefighter breathing equipment.

Step one was to establish a baseline on where the harmful chemicals can stubbornly linger, even after on-scene decontamination.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) were simulated with a nontoxic fluorescent spray that was distributed all over a firefighter’s protective gear, including the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA).

Florescent lights were used to examine the equipment right after exposure to the spray and again following the “gross decon,” or gross decontamination.

The gross decon involves a hose rinse while still in full gear (breathing equipment included), and a scrub down with brushes dipped in a soapy solution followed by a final rinse.

According to the test conducted on Nov. 13, which was captured on video, the simulated carcinogenic materials still clung heavily to certain areas-including the mask and cylinder that are part of the SCBA.

According to a press release from the department, the information from Phase I will be used to plan the subsequent three phases. This is part of the department’s efforts to whittle away cancer risk “through education, providing firefighters a second set of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], gross decon, to a decon ‘washing machine’ to reduce cancer exposure.”

This research on contamination and approaches to cleaning Personal Protective Equipment is being conducted with support from a grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

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