Cardiovascular & Carcinogen Risks to Firefighters

Firehouse Editor-in-Chief Timothy Sendelbach hosted a roundtable discussion during the "Cardiovascular and Carcinogen Risks in Modern Firefighting" research at the Illinois Fire Service Institute on June 22. Panelists include Dr. Gavin Horn (IFSI), Dr. Denise Smith (Skidmore College), Steve Kerber (UL), Mark Mordecai (Globe), Sean DeCrane (IAFF) and Pat Morrison (IAFF). They discuss the contaminants and toxins found in fires, how it comes in contact with skin and answer questions from firefighters who are taking part in the research.

Panel: Cardiovascular & Carcinogen Risks - Part 1


Panel: Cardiovascular & Carcinogen Risks - Part 2


Panel: Cardiovascular & Carcinogen Risks - Part 3


Panel: Cardiovascular & Carcinogen Risks - Part 4


Study Looks at Health Threats to Firefighters

CHAMPAIGN, ILL. – Firefighters often assume when they’re encapsulated in turnout gear, they’re protected from toxins and carcinogens.

But, that may not be the case.

During a collaborative research project underway now at the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI), researchers are not only testing contaminates on the gear, but on skin as well. They’re also monitoring gases created as furniture and carpeting burn.

But, that’s just part of the multi-faceted study involving researchers from IFSI, UL, NIOSH, University of Illinois, Chicago, and Skidmore College.

View Photo Gallery

On Monday morning before 12 Illinois firefighters and researchers got underway for the first day, they paused as the National Anthem was played. After that, it was time to get to work.

Each firefighter had blood drawn, vitals and temperatures checked. Urine samples were tested for certain markers as well as hydration. They were equipped with a device that will monitor the heart for the next 12 hours.

Dr. Denise Smith explained that part of the research is determining the impact of firefighting on the cardio-vascular system. “We talk about putting the rig back in service. How long does it take to get a firefighter back in service? We’re looking to see if there are changes hours after the firefighter does their work.”

Each year, dozens of firefighters die not on the fireground, but hours after the incident.

Firefighters participating in the study donned new gear to make sure samples were not skewed. They carried three chemical collection units, smaller than portable radios, in their coat pockets. When they completed their tasks, it was removed and tested.

UL and NIOSH engineers set up sensitive equipment to monitor gases and heat inside the rooms that would burn or exposed to smoke and heat.

UL Research Engineer Robin Zevotek set up thermal sensors from the floor to ceiling two feet apart in rooms that would burn. In other areas, they were placed a foot apart. During the scenario, he would be able to watch the temperatures on a nearby monitor.

In a hallway, devices would capture the data at one, three and five foot levels. The lowest would be where a victim would likely be, while others would be firefighters either crawling or walking.

Sean DeCrane, a battalion chief from Cleveland, who watched the effort said it’s important for personnel to know what they’re exposed to.

“Some think if they’re not burned, they’re OK. But, that’s not true." DeCrane said. "They don’t know what they’ve been exposed to. That’s why this research is important.”

Smith praised the firefighters for their participation. “We consider you our research partners…”

Research Participants Join Efforts to Improve Firefighter Health

CHAMPAIGN, ILL. – While Illinois Firefighter/Paramedic Justin McWilliams knows he’s thrust into "toxic soup" when he does his job, he’s also anxious to learn how to protect himself.

That’s why he and 11 other firefighters rolled up their sleeves, gave blood and wore a number of monitors while they participated in a number of scenarios at the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI).

“This has been an exciting month,” said Dr. Gavin Horn, IFSI director of research. “This is the first opportunity to work together.”

Among the partners in the project with IFSI are NIOSH, UL, University of Illinois, Chicago, and Skidmore College.

NIOSH technicians used delicate instruments to determine the gases and contaminants emitted as home furnishings burned. Swabs of firefighters’ skin and body were collected before and after the evolution.

To make sure the crews started with the same baseline, they donned new gear donated by Globe, considered a partner in the project.

IAFF officials said they’re looking forward to seeing the data.

“It was interesting to watch it. We all know it’s a dangerous job, and we’re exposed to many cancer-causing chemicals,” said Pat Morrison, IAFF.

Regardless, Morrison said the message about hidden dangers needs to be shared. Firefighters need to take the time to protect not only themselves, but their families as well. Gone are the days of doing things ‘the way we’ve always done them.’

He added that 60 percent of the firefighters who will be added to their memorial this year in Colorado were victims of cancer.

Research results will give fire officials ammunition when they approach legislators about changing laws.

In the small apartment-type structure used for the study, the beds were topped with polyurethane mattresses as well as bedspreads containing a number of chemicals. Devices captured samples of particles in the air before, during and after the fire.

Firefighters involved in the study thus far have all been career or part-time, and have completed a physical.

UL Firefighter Safety Research Director Steve Kerber said he was pleased his team had the opportunity to participate. In addition to collecting air, heat and other samples, the team also tested which gear washing method was best. Among those tried were a dry brush and wet brush with detergent.

He noted that things occurred that they hadn’t anticipated. “It was a tremendous opportunity for us.”

Dr. Denise Smith said she’s anxious to examine the statistics gathered to determine what firefighting activity does to the body.

She mentioned that one firefighter’s temperature during overhaul reached 103. “We need to know when our crews are ready to be placed back in service.”

Blood pressures were monitored until 10 p.m. Monday. The special cuff measured the aortic pressure.

Fire Line

Kolbs Home    To NYS Fire Departments    To Teaching and Training Courses    To Fire Reports    Email
To Kolb