The general notion that firefighters are fighting less structure fires these days may be true. However, per National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) data, there is a house fire every 86 seconds in America. In addition to house fires, firefighters must deal with many other types of fires, including vehicle, wildland, dumpster, and commercial and industrial. The fact remains that firefighters respond to many unknown situations that pose a risk to their life and of those who need their help.
The fire service has come a long way in providing superior personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatus protection. And yet the cancer rate of firefighters is around 63 percent based on recent data. Why is this?
To understand any cause and effect, first understand the conditions of the cause. I asked myself, can we kill this “toxic snake”? So, I began my research. My source of information includes studies done at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Fire Protection Association, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), and other articles written in various fire journals.
The relationship of cancer and toxic gases is very strong; presumptive cancer laws are now recognizing this relationship. What are these gases, and can we identify their toxicity? We know that carbon monoxide (CO) accounts for 50 percent of the off gas in a fire. Beyond that, the list is very long and based on what is burning. A list of possible deadly gases was compiled by NIST labs and includes CO, carbon dioxide (CO2), acetic acid, ammonia, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen bromide, nitric oxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen cyanide, toluene, and phosgene.
The Firefighter Exposure Project study sums it up with the following comments:
The research has me convinced, but more is coming--comprehensive research is what is needed. The challenge of getting the facts is difficult. Why?
First, firefighters are exposed to a wide variety of hazards that are not well identified or quantified. Second, the long gestation or latency period for cancers are difficult to study. Third, firefighters do not live in a fire bubble; other outside factors must be considered. Previous work, lifestyle, and other duties assigned in the firehouse could contribute to the cancer link; no one knows for sure. However, the evidence is convincing to me. The toxic snake is invisible and lives in this environment of fire—all fire—including structure, wildland, dumpster, vehicle, and anything else that burns.
The toxic snake is in the air, on the ground, and in the water. The toxic snake can move through the air and contaminate our coats, pants, boots, gloves, masks, bottles, tools, hose, nozzles, radios, and so on. And now there is proof of contaminants that get under our PPE and attack our skin.
NFFF research points out the following: