Although post-fire contaminants with a proven link to firefighter cancer are minute in size, measured in micrometres, the recent declaration by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that the profession is now officially cancer causing is (in stark contrast) vast, in terms of the impact it will have on our industry.
On 1 July 2022, the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) officially changed the status of firefighting as a profession from ‘Group 2B – Possibly carcinogenic’ to ‘Group 1 – Carcinogenic to humans’. This is far from a surprising development to those who have monitored the situation carefully, as academic research over the last decade has informed us about the dangers of exposure to post-fire contaminants and in particular the issues around dermal absorption – carcinogens being absorbed through the skin.
Whilst the dangers of particulate inhalation have long been understood and controlled via the use of respiratory protection, ingestion and thermal absorption are methods of contamination that are relatively less understood and as a result are generally less considered across wide variety of industries.
All fires will produce acute toxicants such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, exposure to which may produce immediate and damaging effects to those exposed. This is well understood, and firefighting methodology and personal protective equipment has been developed to limit or prevent its effects during training and operations.
As a result of the recent research, the principal concern is chronic toxicants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which cannot be naturally exhausted from the body and once absorbed through the skin, are instead stored in fat and body tissue potentially causing health problems in later life, often leading to a range of cancers.
Hazardous contaminants are chiefly associated with building construction and in particular, the use of non-combustible building materials and flame-retardant synthetic polymers present in furniture. This coupled with the complex mixture of materials now used in the production of modern vehicles provides a substantial risk to those exposed, when involved in fire.
With dermal absorption now a proven route for contamination, it is important to understand how we can best mitigate the risks, and this is where it gets challenging, as the role of a firefighter is to fight fire; non exposure to the hazard is often quite simply not an option and once contaminated, the knock-on effect to individuals and organisations is considerable, especially when we consider that research suggests that an increase in body temperature (a natural side effect of firefighting) can increase the rate of absorption exponentially.
Personal and organisational change
Our new understanding of the dangers of post-fire contaminants has already impacted the day-to-day routine of firefighters and their organisations with the simple aim of preventing cross contamination and ensuring dangerous toxicants are removed, eliminated, or contained/controlled at the scene of operations.
Firefighting tactics must be adapted to consider our new understanding and the next few years will no doubt see a renewed approach to training and operational activity, both in terms of exposure to live fire and the subsequent management and decontamination of people, PPE and equipment post incident. This has started in many countries, and we already see a change of approach to risk versus benefit decisions. Where it was once seen as efficient to instruct firefighters to ‘get in there’ and ‘turn over’ a fire, this approach is now being tempered due to the risks of exposure to carcinogenic contaminants. Of course, this must be considered against other factors such as environmental protection. Not an easy environment.
The days of dirty fire kit being a ‘badge of honour’ are quite rightly rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Improved access to clean work attire and firefighting kit is already prevalent and new routines for personal washing, and decontamination of equipment has started to become more commonplace. Awareness has led to the provision of clean and dirty areas in kit bags, fire appliances, support vehicles and fire stations/departments. Storage of equipment now considers the risk, and innovative solutions ensure that transfer of contaminants is kept to an absolute minimum. For example, new fire appliances now facilitate breathing apparatus being outside of the crew cab in special lockers. It is a wholesale change of custom, culture and practice and the need for absolute cleanliness is quickly becoming the new normal to ensure that contaminants cannot be transferred. Firefighters are now being instructed to shower before they leave work, and to decontaminate personal items so as not to contaminate their own vehicles and homes.
Who is at risk?
Firefighting is a broad church, and we must also consider the role of aviation firefighters, industrial fire crews, volunteers and even those with little/infrequent exposure such as motorsports marshals and rescue teams. Each organisation will face the same training and operational challenges and must consider appropriate requirements to ensure their personnel are safe, can limit exposure, be adequately protected and when required, can be quickly and effectively decontaminated along with their equipment, all to prevent subsequent cross contamination.
Non-operational personnel who may (for example) attend a scene post fire for investigation also consider the need for decontamination as contaminants will remain a potential hazard for many hours after the fire is extinguished. Service technicians who are exposed to diesel fumes, which also produce polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), must be aware of their exposure and the need for decontamination.
De-Wipe – breaking the chain of contamination
To be as effective as possible and therefore mitigate the risks to their employees and their families by cross contamination and the unwanted transfer of chronic toxicants, organisations must prevent contaminants leaving the fireground in an uncontrolled manner. They must break the chain.
At De-Wipe, we aim to make sure that you ‘Don’t Take it Home’ as we understand the critical importance of breaking the chain of cross contamination between people, equipment and vehicles.
Our decontamination wipes, for immediate post fire use, are scientifically proven to eliminate harmful, cancer-causing toxins and pollutants from skin. During trials conducted by Manchester Metropolitan University in 2019, De-Wipes were assessed for efficacy in controlled laboratory tests. The groundbreaking study focused on the eight most hazardous PAHs including the highly carcinogenic Benzo(a)pyrene. Results indicate De-Wipe can remove these toxic PAHs including an amount greater than 91% of Benzo(a)pyrene after exposure to skin.
They are also dermatologically tested and suitable for use on hands, face, ears and areas around the neck and throat. Dermatological tests conducted in 2021 revealed no adverse reactions were made up of 30 healthy adults, both male and female. Among the participants was a range of skin types, such as dry, oily, sensitive, mixed and normal. De-Wipe’s cancer-fighting formula is applied to the participant’s skin via a patch which is removed and checked at 24, 48 and 72 hours.
De-Wipes come in a range of convenient packs, from single individual wipes to multi packs containing 40 wipes and are available in 30x20cm or larger 60x30cm. The multi packs are resealable to ensure they are always fresh and effective, and all our packs are small enough to immediately become part of your post-fire decontamination process.
Our products are scientifically formulated with key ingredients to defend against harmful dioxins and pollutants that workers in multiple industries worldwide are exposed to. What’s more, De-Wipes are the UK’s only 100% biodegradable decontamination wipe, so we not only keep you clean but green.
Harnessing the same cancer-fighting power as our scientifically proven after fire wipes, De-Wipe Hair & Body Wash is the only scientific solution formulated to wash carcinogenic toxins in soot and smoke from your hair, scalp and body, leaving you clean, invigorated and odour-free.
Research at Manchester Metropolitan University concluded: ‘The results of this investigation are positive and indicate that De-Wipe Hair and Body Wash can remove over 80% of dioxins from skin and, a 1% solution can remove the majority of the dioxins from hair. It should be noted that these are lower bound conservative estimates of the effectiveness, and the product may be expected to prove even more effective in real life scenarios.’
Key ingredients eliminate harmful dioxins and PAHs. Shower within the hour and be certain you’ve rid your hair and body of harmful toxins before they have a chance to absorb or contaminate your home. De-Wipe Hair & Body Wash is available in 4-litre bottles, is cruelty free and designed for every hair and skin type. We also supply a convenient dispenser.
What about equipment? At De-Wipe we’ve taken our scientifically proven cancer-fighting formula and condensed it into a wipe that’s rugged and tear resistant. They are perfect to use vigorously on your equipment, vehicle cabs, helmets, face masks, gloves and personal items such as phones, wallets, purses and keys.
Equipment wipes are safe to use on all manner of materials such as composites, polymers, plastics, rubber, EDPM (ethylene propylene diene monomer), metals, silicone and PVC.
Firefighting is now officially a cancer-causing occupation. The causal link between chronic toxicants and cancers in serving and retired firefighters has been established. Individuals and organisations must make rapid and far-reaching changes to long-standing working practices, customs and culture. The way firefighters train, respond and act during and after incidents must be reviewed. All must understand the importance of immediate removal of contaminants from personnel and equipment.
The introduction of a simple, cost-effective, sustainable, environmentally friendly and scientifically proven product range from De-Wipe as part of your post-fire decontamination process will ensure that your organisation, its people and their families are kept safe from contaminants. Let us help you break the chain and ensure you ‘Don’t Take it Home’.