Combatting contamination

Combatting contamination

Emerging evidence continues to show links between exposure to smoke and higher rates of cancer diagnoses amongst the world’s firefighters. Roger Startin, Joint Managing Director of Bristol Uniforms, discusses how PPE designers and suppliers are working to minimise this threat.

In recent years, specialist firefighter PPE design has made great strides, taking full advantage of advances in fabric and fibre technology. Today, firefighter PPE can offer protection from a myriad of dangers from heat, flame and flashovers, to blood borne pathogens, to the dangerous rise in body temperature known as ‘heat stress’. However, PPE designers and manufacturers have recently been faced with a new challenge. 

There is now significant evidence confirming that accumulative or acute workplace exposure to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), or soot, is directly linked to cancers such as lung, thyroid, bladder and testicular. The long-term health risks associated with inhaling smoke are widely accepted across the industry, but there is now additional concern about the risks of absorbing carcinogenic substances through the skin. This has immediately presented a new objective for the industry: to create PPE that acts as a barrier to toxins and potentially harmful particles, whilst ensuring the body stays cool and dry.

Studies have shown that some areas of the body are much more vulnerable to smoke particle exposure than others. Whilst standard firefighting jackets, trousers and helmets provide good general protection on the torso, arms, legs, and top of the head, the neck and jaw areas are particularly susceptible to smoke particle exposure. Although these areas are often covered by protective hoods, these hoods are usually the most penetrable part of a firefighter’s kit and are in direct contact with a firefighter’s skin. An NFPA report states that: “The face and neck have been identified as a significant area of dermal exposure to products of combustion and potential carcinogens.” Other areas of concern are around the wrists, where ill-fitting gloves or sleeves can leave areas of the skin exposed.

Protective hoods

In response, world leading fabric and fibre manufacturers have been working hard to develop new materials that can at once filter harmful smoke particles whilst allowing heat and moisture to escape. For example, the innovative new Nomex NanoFlex particulate barrier from Dupont has been specially developed for this purpose and has been incorporated into the development of our new Particulate Protection Hood. Worn under the helmet and collar, it covers the vulnerable neck and jawline areas, and is proven to be 99.8% efficient at preventing particle exposure. At the same time, the hood is also lightweight, soft and breathable, allowing heat and moisture to escape, thereby also reducing the risk of heat stress.

Compatibility and sizing

Research findings also demonstrate how vital it is that all sets of PPE kit are fully compatible, so that boots, gloves and helmets operate effectively with trousers and coats, without leaving any areas of the body vulnerable or exposed to risk. At Bristol, we offer a wide range of combinations to make up a full kit, and all of these are compatibility tested to ensure the garments work effectively together to provide full body protection.

Of course, over and above suitable fabric, materials and designs, it is also crucial to provide garments that fit each and every firefighter well. Whilst an oversized suit will be too heavy and difficult to operate in, kit that is too short or small is just as dangerous as it can compromise the thermal protection or leave areas of the body exposed to smoke particles. A comprehensive sizing procedure for measuring should always be carried out, and a wide range of sizes should be available so that every firefighter has well-fitting kit.

Practical procedures

Evidence also reveals that firefighters are vulnerable to smoke particle exposure long after a fire is extinguished. Dangerous PAHs are proven to remain on PPE following exposure to smoke, and can be transferred from person to person, and from vehicles to fire stations. Early findings from the University of Central Lancashire, for example, show that a firefighter’s risk of developing cancer is increased if high levels of harmful chemicals are not removed from protective gear. Contaminated PPE can slowly gas off PAHs for a considerable time. PAHs can also cross-transfer to other surfaces, potentially contaminating firefighting equipment, vehicles and kit rooms back at the station.

As a result, the industry is introducing practices such as the swift removal of PPE following a fire-related incident, using wet wipes to clean particularly vulnerable areas such as the face and neck immediately after an incident, and showering and changing on return to the fire station.  

Cleaning and maintenance 

The regular, professional cleaning of PPE has also been highlighted as a practical means of reducing the risk of carcinogens entering the body, and it is recommended that kit should be professionally decontaminated after every fire-related incident. In the UK, Bristol Uniforms provides comprehensive in-house Managed Services, and many of our appointed distributors overseas offer similar facilities or have relationships with reputable cleaning contractors to handle the regular washing and decontamination of PPE after use. 

International Standards are being put into place to establish new requirements for the care and maintenance of firefighting PPE to reduce health risks associated with contamination or damage. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) develops standards for the USA which are adopted by many other countries. It was the first standards-setting body to publish a standard outlining criteria for the regular cleaning of kit back in 2001, and this has been recently updated to take into account recent research findings. NFPA1851:2020 now requires a swatch of fabric to be contaminated in a laboratory, sent to those responsible for laundering to be washed, and then returned to the laboratory for confirmation that it meets the required level of cleanliness. Development is also underway on a new standard from the International Standards Organisation (ISO) for the Cleaning, Inspection and Repair of Firefighters’ PPE. This will be ISO23616 and is expected to be published in 2021.

PPE designers must be mindful that in the future, PPE is likely to be cleaned more frequently than ever before, so must also be robust enough to withstand multiple washes.

Minimising health risks and helping firefighters to do their job effectively and safely, is at the heart of everything we do as PPE designers and manufacturers. We have come a very long way over the past 60 years, and it is clear that firefighter PPE, the specialist fabrics used to make it, and the procedures we adopt to maintain it, will continue to evolve as we learn more about the new and existing dangers faced by firefighters across the globe.