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Fire Fighter Toxic Substance Exposures


Chemical Exposures during Fires

Fire Fighters may be exposed to numerous chemicals during a fire through inhalation or skin contact. Many different types of synthetic chemicals are released from the combustion of building materials and building contents, including water pipes, walls, wiring, fabric, office equipment, furniture, and other synthetic materials. Two common classes of synthetic chemicals that fire fighters may be exposed to are:

You may encounter these and other hazardous chemicals as a fire fighter on active duty. An exposure does not necessarily lead to illness, but these chemicals can and do affect human health. Statistics show that fire fighters are more likely to contract heart disease, lung disease, and cancer than other workers.1 Click here for more information on fire fighter chemical exposure. Other conditions, such as thyroid problems, infertility, neurological disorders, and diabetes have been linked with exposure to toxic chemicals in laboratory and human studies. Therefore, it is important that fire fighters take the necessary steps to reduce their exposures to these chemicals, including:

  • Wearing self-contained breathing apparatus throughout knockdown and overhaul operations

  • Cleaning PPE after a fire to reduce the risk of dermal exposure from contact with contaminated gear

What's New This Month?

Tribune exposes industry dishonesty

The Chicago Tribune published an expose of industry dishonesty in promoting chemical retardants that are neither effective in preventing fires nor safe for human contact. Read More

Inuit study links PFCs and increased breast cancer

In a recent study, PFC—used in many applications including waterproofing fabrics and firefighting foam—were related to an increase in breast cancer in the Inuit population of Greenland and Canada. Read More (PDF)



Fire Fighter Exposure Assessment

One way of measuring exposures to synthetic chemicals in the workplace is through biomonitoring, which is the analysis of human fluids or tissues for the presence of chemical substances. Biomonitoring studies on fire fighters can provide important information on the different substances fire fighters are exposed to, including many types of synthetic chemicals. Biomonitoring also takes into account all routes of exposure: inhalation, ingestion, and skin absorption. Testing your blood or urine for chemicals can tell you whether or not you were exposed to them, but it does not indicate that you have any disease, as the human body's defenses may detoxify or eliminate some or all of these chemicals. These defensive mechanisms are not well understood with respect to many of these chemicals; therefore, the full meaning of absorbing them is unknown. Furthermore, biomonitoring results do not indicate the source of your exposure.

Biomonitoring studies can reveal important information on the effectiveness of personal protective equipment. The Commonweal Biomonitoring Resource Center conducted a biomonitoring study of fire fighters from 15 different states that illustrates the importance of using protective equipment throughout the duration of the fire, including knockdown and overhaul phases. The study measured body burdens of dioxins and furans in fire fighters who wore full protective gear during a fire and compared the levels to those of fire inspectors at the same fire who were not wearing full protective gear. The fire fighters carried dioxin and furan body burden levels at lower levels than the fire inspectors, which can be attributed to the correct use of personal protective equipment.2

If you are a fire fighter who participated in the study, click here to access your personal information about the study. This information is confidential, and is accessible to those fire fighters only who participated in the project.


1. http://www.iaff.org/hs/phi

2. Hsu, Jing-Fang, How-Ran Guo, Hsueh Wen Wang, Chin-Kun Liao, Pao-Chi Liao. 2011. “An occupational exposure assessment of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin and dibenzofurans in firefighters.” Chemosphere Volume 83, Issue 10. May. pp 1353–1359.


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