PPE - team at FSRI site

New Peer-Reviewed Journal Article Evaluates Firefighter Exposure to Volatile Organic Compounds

June 26, 2023

Firefighters are at an increased risk of cancer which may be due, in part,  to their occupational exposure to combustion byproducts. Additionally, recent studies have found volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and some polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) like naphthalene can permeate or penetrate the firefighter personal protective equipment (PPE) ensemble, increasing the potential for dermal exposure. This has led to questions about how the design of PPE might impact protection, questions about the impact of base layers (i.e., short sleeves and shorts vs. long sleeves and pants) that firefighters wear under their PPE ensemble, and whether quickly unzipping turnout gear post-fire can attenuate combustion byproducts trapped inside the gear. The new journal article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health the Evaluating Exposure to VOCs and Naphthalene for Firefighters Wearing Different PPE Configurations through Measures in Air, Exhaled Breath, and Urine will help to address some of these questions.

Through collaboration with National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) and Skidmore College, FSRI research engineers worked with 23 firefighters performing firefighting activities on three consecutive days for this research. Firefighters wore one of three PPE ensembles ( 1) traditional bunker gear style PPE with short base layers, 2) traditional bunker gear style PPE with long base layer, 3) prototype PPE with one-piece moisture barrier and interface control elements with long base layer) while working inside a Fireground Simulator to evaluate VOC and naphthalene concentrations outside and inside of hoods, turnout jackets, and turnout pants worn by firefighters. Biological samples were also collected from firefighters to evaluate VOC and naphthalene absorption.

“This study examined some common types of station wear, or base layers, worn by firefighters and a prototype style of PPE, building on our previous work examining the protection provided by our turnout gear. These results will help firefighters and fire departments understand the impact their station wear has on protection from fireground contaminants and assist PPE manufactures in developing the best gear for the fire service.” - Richard Kesler


Benzene, toluene, styrene, and naphthalene were all found to penetrate the 3 sampling areas (hoods, jackets, pants) for all 3 configurations. There were also significant increases from pre- to post-fire for some metabolites of VOCs (e.g., benzene, toluene) and naphthalene in urinary results and VOCs in exhaled breath results. Firefighters wearing shorts and short sleeves absorbed higher amounts of certain compounds(e.g., styrene, naphthalene).

Additionally, the PPE designed with enhanced interface control features appeared to provide more protection from some of the compounds measured here. The  enhanced features are being developed at this time; wearability and heat stress should be considered when introducing new PPE designs. These results suggest that firefighters can absorb some VOCs and naphthalene that penetrate the PPE ensemble, likely via the dermal route, but that quickly unzipping the turnout jacket when away from smoke and  firefighting activities are complete may reduce firefighters’ exposures. 

This manuscript is a component of the PPE Interface Study. This study was supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Assistance to Firefighters Grant program (EMW-2017-FP-00635) and made possible through agreement with the CDC Foundation.


Read the full article here.


About International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH):

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH) (ISSN 1660-4601) is a peer-reviewed scientific journal that publishes original articles, critical reviews, research notes, and short communications in the interdisciplinary area of environmental health sciences and public health. It links several scientific disciplines including biology, biochemistry, biotechnology, cellular and molecular biology, chemistry, computer science, ecology, engineering, epidemiology, genetics, immunology, microbiology, oncology, pathology, pharmacology, and toxicology, in an integrated fashion, to address critical issues related to environmental quality and public health. Therefore, IJERPH focuses on the publication of scientific and technical information on the impacts of natural phenomena and anthropogenic factors on the quality of our environment, the interrelationships between environmental health and the quality of life, as well as the socio-cultural, political, economic, and legal considerations related to environmental stewardship, environmental medicine, and public health.



PPE Interface Study