Firefighters are among those people who suffer severe health hazards during the course of the performance of their duties.
The health hazards may range from moderate smoke inhalation to severe breathing troubles caused by the smoke, cancer, risk of developing cardiac problems and so on. Firefighters are exposed to these dangers everyday of their lives. (“A Summary of health hazard evaluations” 2001)
Let us consider just one example of the kind of hazard that a firefighter is exposed to, everyday of his working life. On December 4 2003, the owner of a jewelry store tried to tighten a screw on his safe, which had been fitted with an outdated chemical theft deterrent device.
When the store owner used his instrument to tighten the screw, he found to his dismay that he had inadvertently released the chemical known as ‘tear gas’. He sustained injuries and accidentally caused a fire. Firefighters had to rush to the scene and were exposed to the chemical. This is just one example of the kind of hazards that firefighters are exposed to during the course of the regular duties. (“Brief Report” (2004)
One potential hazard for a firefighter is the risk of developing cancer. The US Senator Barbara Mikulski has called for a thorough study to be conducted on these and it was taken up by the National Institute for Occupational Safety.
The Senator (1) said, “Firefighters and their families already understand the hazards of being on the job, whether it is rushing into a burning building or responding to a chemical spill. I believe that they have the right to know the potential health hazards of simply reporting for duty.
That is why this research is so important – it could potentially save lives.” Such studies can be very important in not only analyzing the potential hazards of fire to a firefighter, but also to find methods to prevent these hazards, and in finding a method of treatment to cure the diseases that develop due to these occupational hazards. (Schwartz, Melissa 2006)
A University of Cincinnati Team has stated that firefighters are at an increased risk of developing cancer, because they are exposed to hazardous substances like soot, benzene and chloroform.
The study showed that the rates for testicular cancer and the risks for prostate cancer for firefighters were a hundred percent higher than for the average individual. If the workplace could be monitored and controlled, then the risks could be brought down.
Firefighters were also at a greater risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Carcinogens, when inhaled during the course of the performance of their duties would pose grave dangers to firefighters.
According to Dr Grace LeMasters, the equipment that firefighters were required to wear to protect themselves from pollutants and hazardous substances which would prevent them from inhaling these hazardous chemicals was extremely heavy and cumbersome, and this meant that a firefighter would wear it for some time, and remove it as soon as he came out of the fire.
These people were unaware that the risk of exposure continued even after the fire was subdued; chemicals and other toxic substances would continue to be present at the site of the fire for a long period of time, and the firefighter would inadvertently expose himself to these substances when he removed his protective gear.
James Lockey (2), a Professor of environmental health and pulmonary medicine at the university, who contributed to the same study said: “There’s a critical and immediate need for additional protective equipment to help firefighters avoid inhalation and skin exposures to known and suspected occupational carcinogen.” (J, Lockey 2006)
Firefighting is known to be one of the most dangerous and hazardous occupations, at par with other occupations like construction and mining. The working environment for firefighters is quite unlike any other occupation, because it carries risks to life, and brings on respiratory and other systemic health hazards that contribute to the detriment of firefighters’ health.
For example, in wildland fires, there are certain inherent hazards such as inhaling combustion products. The dangers may differ according to the type and amount of material being burned, the soil conditions at the site of the fire, the temperature and the time that the firefighter is exposed to the fire.
Smoke inhalation is one of the primary reasons for causing hazards to firefighter health, because it is made up of a large number of particles, and when the firefighter inhales these particles, he would suffer from respiratory problems of various kinds, caused by the particles of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen free radicals. (Leonard SS et al (2007)
One of the greatest risks to a firefighter’s health is the fact that a firefighter works under uncontrolled circumstances, including heat, noise, risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals, smoke, infectious diseases and others.
A study of these risks shows that they are biological, psychological, physical, and stress related. (Morse H Linda (n.d) One of the potential adverse effects of the hazards of firefighting is the fact that a firefighter, like other emergency workers, puts himself at risk for developing the Hepatitis C virus, or what is known as the ‘HCV’ infection.
However, in a study conducted by the Division of Viral Hepatitis to determine the risk factors for infection among 2,946 responders, the serum of the participants was analyzed and it was found that the risk for firefighters was not too high, but they were present all the same. (Datta SD, Armstrong GL, Roome AJ, Alter MJ (2003)
Another adverse effect of firefighting is that it may cause risks for his short term and long term health. The physical and the psychological demands on a firefighter caused by fighting a fire of any kind are many; the firefighter inhales chemicals like carbon monoxide, benzene, particulate, asbestos, polynuclear aromatic compounds, hydrogen chloride, and cyanide, and he is exposed to great amounts of heat and to noise.
In addition, since their jobs require them to respond to medical emergencies as well, they are also exposed to infectious diseases. Cardiovascular diseases, pulmonary diseases, hearing loss and cancer are just a few of the dangers of fire fighting, and it must be stated that a firefighter puts himself at the risk of developing any of these diseases at any point of his career.
This means that there is a need for research into the long term health hazards to a firefighter, and how they may be monitored so that the impact may be decreased considerably. (J Melius (2001) Recent research has also revealed an astonishing fact: most firefighters put themselves at great risk for heart attacks when they are fighting a blaze.
Statistics reveal that the risk to a firefighter is almost a hundred percent and this even when they are performing less strenuous tasks; thereby making experts’ statements and predictions that firefighters are at grave danger of developing cardiac problems true.
A Harvard study published in the New England Journal of Medicine states that the heart attack may occur when a firefighter was fighting a fire at the scene, and the risks were compounded when the firefighter rushed in response to an alarm. (Dedman, Bill 2007)
In a study conducted by the ‘Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance’, it was found that the most frequently released chemicals during a fire were ammonia, chlorine, pesticides, ammonia, chlorine, hydrochloric acid, carbon monoxide, and 0-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile.
These were responsible for causing great health hazards to firefighters. (Berkowitz Z, Horton DK, Kaye WE 2004) In one example, firefighters were fighting a department store fire and afterwards, all the firefighters exhibited symptoms of burning eyes, mucous membrane irritation.
The respiratory symptoms and the pulmonary functions of several hundred firefighters were measured using a spirometer two days after the fire and the data obtained showed that prolonged exposure to irritants of this kind could lead to the development of pulmonary function defects. (Tyan-Luen GU, et al (2007)
In a similar study, a screening for cancer was done on firefighters, since recent research had stated that the risk of firefighters developing cancer was significantly high. Aldehydes, carbon monoxide and particulate matter were some of the substances that a firefighter would inhale while he was fighting a fire, and benzene and formaldehyde would put the firefighter at grave risk.
The study recommended that these and other similar substances must be analyzed and studied further to assess the actual risks and hazards to a firefighter. (Booze, TF, Reinhart TE, Quiirng SJ, Ottmar RD 2004) A firefighter is also required to wash his body thoroughly after he has finished his duties at the scene of the fire, one way to manage the hazards of fire. It is a sad fact that most firefighters neglect to perform this vitally important duty.
According to Henry Scowcroft (3), “This research highlights the need to constantly monitor and assess people’s workplace exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, so that firefighters and other at-risk groups are properly protected whilst carrying out their jobs” (Snowcroft, Henry (2006)