Fire Fighters & First Responders



Firefighters and First Responders face danger from flame, structural collapse, and smoke inhalation; however there is a less obvious but equally real hazard due to exposure to toxic, reactive and potentially carcinogenic chemicals and dust, including combustion products that are both inhalation hazards and skin absorptive hazards.

These include:

  • Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)
  • Nitric Oxide (NO)
  • Carbon Monoxide (CO)
  • Hydrogen Chloride (HCl)
  • Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN)
  • Hydrogen Fluoride (HF)
  • Ozone (O3)
  • Acrolein
  • Arsenic
  • Mercury
  • Benzene
  • Formaldehyde
  • Glutaraldehyde
  • Volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds (VOCs and SVOCs), and particulate materials including soot (carbon particles <10 μm diameter are of particular concern), metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), asbestos, fiberglass, silicates, and other inorganic materials.

Of particular concern are:


Researchers at Pennsylvania State University studied the complex mixture of volatile, semi-volatile and non-volatile compounds released and focused on the semi/nonvolatile components of fire debris to better understand firefighter exposure risks. They found that commonly used brominated flame retardants formed polyhalogenated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PXDD/Fs) and dibenzofurans (PBDD/Fs) – suspected carcinogens:

– concentration ranges in household simulation debris were observed at 0.01–5.32 ppb PXDFs and 0.18–82.11 ppb PBDFs)
– concentration ranges in electronics simulation debris were observed at 0.10–175.26 ppb PXDFs and 0.33–9254.41 ppb PBDFs, and
– samples taken from the particulate matter coating the firefighters’ helmets contained some of the highest levels of dibenzofurans, ranging from 4.10 ppb to 2.35 ppm.

These observations indicate that firefighters (and first responders) at fire scenes are exposed to a complex mixture of hundreds/thousands of different potentially carcinogenic polyhalogenated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans that could negatively impact their health (1).

The finding that firefighter’s helmets were coated with extremely high levels of dibenzofurans is of particular concern, as the chemical coating (probably also present on tunics, jackets, coveralls etc.) can contaminate both the firefighters and their immediate environment [vehicle cabins and fire stations].
Epidemiological studies in the US (2) have demonstrated associations between firefighting and increased risk for cancers, including cancer of the

  • Brain and nervous system
  • Lymphatic and haernatopoietic (blood formation) systems
  • Oesophagus
  • Colon
  • Rectum
  • Kidney
  • Bladder
  • Genito-urinary system.

Another study has added to the evidence that firefighters are at increased risk from certain cancers, particularly testicular and brain cancers, and melanoma of the skin (3).

Hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and carbon monoxide (CO).

Several studies in the US have reported a probable connection between fire-fighting and cardiovascular disease, implicating exposure of fire fighters to both HCN and CO. In 2006, 49 (46.2%) of the fire fighter line-of-duty-deaths in the US were ruled to be due to cardiac arrest, a figure which increased in 2007! (4).

Particulates / ultrafines.

In any fire/combustion event, higher levels of ultrafine particles (relative to background levels) will be produced during both suppression and overhaul phases, and exposure to particulate materials has been found to show a positive correlation with increased cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.

The high efficiency of ultrafine particle deposition deep into the lung tissue can result in the release of inflammatory mediators into the circulation, causing toxic effects on internal tissues such as the heart.

Furthermore, other particulate-borne toxic materials particularly metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), can be drawn deep into the lungs and spread to other body tissues, including the cardiovascular and nervous systems, and the liver. Long-term repeated exposure may accelerate cardiovascular mortality and the initiation/progression of atherosclerosis (3). A recent report in the UK reached the conclusion that there was

“….a significant amount of evidence that confirms the accumulative or acute workplace exposure to PAHs, or soot, is directly linked to cancers such as lung, thyroid, bladder and testicular.”

The exposure of fire fighters to airborne combustion products can be almost completely controlled by adherence to established protocols especially in regard to the use of PPE [fire- fighting tunics; trousers; jackets; saloppettes & coveralls) and SCBA, decontamination procedures (simple decontamination on scene, machine washing of PPE after each fire and a thorough cleaning when required), personal hygiene practices and ‘good house-keeping’.

However there is a potential source of contamination which is not widely appreciated.

Unpublished observations from fire-crews in the US has indicated unacceptably (dangerously) high levels of CO and VOCs in the vehicle cabins during return journeys to the fire station. This is due to the ‘gassing off’ of these combustion products from contaminated clothing and equipment. These high levels are maintained in the air during initial removal and decontamination of these items at the station, and during storage of untreated clothing and equipment.

Orionaire FA380

The problems associated with cabin air quality were resolved by installing Orionaire FA380 units in the vehicle cabins to continuously remove CO, VOCs, MVOCs, particulates and other toxic, reactive and potentially carcinogenic chemicals [this technology is equally efficient at removing airborne micro-organisms, reducing the risk of infection from Bio-hazard incidents].

Similarly Orionaire units mounted in uniform/equipment lockers/rooms have reduced airborne emissions of combustion products:-

*Air Manager Scandinavian. 23 October 2012.

Many people are affected by their work every day without knowing this. Fireman has, at times, extremely work when they are out and extinguish fires and save lives. Released by a fire, there are many vapors and gases from the material that burns. These gases and vapors accumulate in the fireman’s outfit. After finishing off and when the fireman’s clothes hanging on the fire released these fumes and gases, and thus influence the fireman negative.

Both at Hvidovre fire station and fire station Glostrup has chosen to set up AirManager units to solve this problem.










*previous designation of the Orionaire units –

Reductions in smoke metabolites by Orionaire technology.

Mean level of tobacco smoke analytes in the atmosphere of a public house pool room for a seven day period with and without Orionaire technology in operation

Mean levels of tmospheric tobacco smoke residue with and without Orionaire.   (MicroSearch Laboratories.)



Dr. David L. Webber. 2nd May, 2019.

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