Occupational Exposures in the Fire Service

Jonathan Skube, Western Kentucky University


Nearly a million firefighters employed in the U.S., representing a dedicated workforce exposed to stressors that are both obvious and unclear. In a review of the leading causes of mortality for firefighters, the documented cause and nature of injury are overwhelmingly due to medical reasons other than traumatic injury. Epidemiological studies have suggested that there is an increased risk of specific cancers associated with firefighting. Exposure studies of the fire environment have shown to produce a variety of combustion byproducts that include carcinogenic chemicals and substances known to contribute to cardiovascular disorders including ultrafine particulate matter; substances that are invisible but actually increase in concentration as fire suppression operations continue. Most importantly, combustion byproducts are found to enter the body through both dermal and inhalation routes of exposure even while structural-firefighters ensample is worn with uptake noted by a marked increase in body burden of these chemicals after exposure. In conclusion, this research has provided evidence that minimizing exposures through compliance with current personal protective equipment, particularly continued usage of self-contained breathing apparatus usage during salvage and overhaul, and maintaining gear alone is not enough. We need to approach the fire service as a unique occupation and from an industrial hygiene standpoint where every fire equals an exposure.