Person wearing gloves checking a monitor on a firefighter's gear

Journal Article Reports on the Characterization of Firefighter Exposures Based on Various Types of New or Laundered PPE

December 10, 2021

The Characterizing exposure to benzene, toluene, and naphthalene in firefighters wearing different types of new or laundered PPE peer-reviewed journal article, led by Alex Mayer, Kenny Fent, and colleagues from the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) with contributions by Gavin Horn and Steve Kerber from UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute (FSRI), was recently published in International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health.

The fire service has become more aware of the potential for adverse health outcomes due to occupational exposure to hazardous combustion byproducts. Because of these concerns, personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturers have developed new protection concepts like particulate-blocking hoods to reduce firefighters exposure. Additionally, fire departments have implemented exposure reduction interventions like routine laundering of PPE after fire responses. 

This study utilized a fireground exposure simulator (FES) with twenty-four firefighters performing firefighting activities on three consecutive days wearing one of three PPE ensembles: 

  1. new knit hood, new turnout jacket, and new turnout pants 
  2. new particulate-blocking hood, new turnout jacket, and new turnout pants or 
  3. laundered particulate-blocking hood, laundered turnout jacket, and laundered turnout pants. 

As firefighters performed the firefighting activities, personal air sampling on the outside and inside the turnout jacket was conducted to quantify exposures to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and naphthalene. Pre- and immediately post-fire exhaled breath samples were collected to characterize the absorption of VOCs. Benzene, toluene, and naphthalene were found to diffuse through and/or around the turnout jacket, as inside jacket benzene concentrations were often near levels reported outside the turnout jacket (9.7-11.7% median benzene reduction from outside the jacket to inside the jacket). The three different PPE ensembles did not appear to affect the level of contamination found inside the jacket for the compounds evaluated here. Benzene concentrations in exhaled breath increased significantly from pre- to post-fire for all three groups (p-values < 0.05). The difference of pre-to post-fire benzene exhaled breath concentrations were positively associated with inside jacket and outside jacket benzene concentrations, even though self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) were worn during each response. This suggests the firefighters can absorb these compounds via the dermal route. 

The main takeaway from this study is that the ingress of certain volatile substances through or around the protective barriers of turnout jackets and protective hoods can contribute to the biological levels in firefighters through their skin and into their bodies.

This manuscript reports on results from from the IFSI/FSRI/NIOSH Fireground Study, a component of the Cardiovascular & Chemical Exposure Risks in Today’s Fire Service project. In particular, this study builds on the “Effects of firefighting hood design, laundering and doffing on smoke protection, heat stress and wearability” and “Development of Fireground Exposure Simulator (FES) Prop for PPE Testing and Evaluation” publications. 

FSRI partnered with NIOSH, Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI Research), and Skidmore College to publish this paper. Funding for this project was provided by the Department of Homeland Security Fire Prevention and Safety Grant #EMW-2015-FP-00646.

Click here to read the article.



About International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health

The International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health serves as a multidisciplinary forum for original reports on exposure assessment and the reactions to and consequences of human exposure to the biological, chemical, and physical environment. Research reports, short communications, reviews, scientific comments, technical notes, and editorials will be peer-reviewed before acceptance for publication. Priority will be given to articles on epidemiological aspects of environmental toxicology, health risk assessments, susceptible (sub) populations, sanitation and clean water, human biomonitoring, environmental medicine, and public health aspects of exposure-related outcomes.


Assessing the Cardiovascular and Chemical Risks Faced by Firefighters