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Dirty gear increases risk of health problems

March 8, 2013 – Firefighters who don’t clean their gear after every fire, and particularly their balaclavas, risk developing health problems caused by the hydrogen cyanide (HCN) contained in fire smoke, says Capt. Steve Jones of the Burlington Fire Department in Ontario.

March 8, 2013 
By Olivia D'Orazio

March 8, 2013 – Firefighters who don’t clean their gear after every fire, and particularly their balaclavas, risk developing health problems caused by the hydrogen cyanide (HCN) contained in fire smoke, says Capt. Steve Jones of the Burlington Fire Department in Ontario.

Jones told more than 125 firefighters and officers from 55 Ontario departments at a seminar on hydrogen cyanide Thursday that potentially lethal HCN particles cling to PPE and can cause health issues ranging from vertigo to death. The balaclavas – which come into direct contact with the skin – are the worst offenders, Jones says.

The Burlington Fire Department is a pioneer on HCN monitoring in Canada, with the country's first SOG on the subject.

Jones, an 11-year veteran of the fire service, says his passion for the topic was sparked at a seminar on hydrogen cyanide during an International Association of Fire Chiefs hazmat conference in Baltimore in 2010.

Jones says he learned at that conference just how deadly HCN can be. At just 50 parts per million (ppm), the gas – which is a byproduct of smoke at every fire – is immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH); its so-called toxic twin, carbon monoxide, is IDLH at 1,200 ppm. Even more staggering, Jones said, is the fact that HCN levels are highest at incidents at which firefighters tend to be most complacent – kitchen fires, car fires, dumpster fires and during overhaul operations.

"The absolute worst offender for hydrogen cyanide is the pot on the stove," Jones said. "It's the smouldering fires [that present the most hazards]. . . We'd be better off going into a fully-involved kitchen fire with no SCBA than we would be going to that [pot-on-the-stove fire].

"We would never go into a hazmat situation without SCBA; and yet, we do it [at kitchen fires] all the time."

Jones detailed the effect of HCN on the body (it binds to red blood cells, preventing the absorption of oxygen) and explained how firefighters can limit their exposure to carbon monoxide's toxic twin – by wearing breathing apparatus all the time.

But, even with SCBA, Jones says, these chemicals are still being absorbed through the skin – even with bunker gear on. "We can't afford the luxury of being hit with this stuff through inhalation, too," he says.

Bunker gear retains these toxins, making it possible for the body to absorb HCN through the skin. The worst spot for absorption is in the neck area, near the thyroid gland, where the only layer of protection is the balaclava (HCN poisoning has been found to cause thyroid enlargement). The balaclava has been found to retain toxins such as HCN in the highest concentration and for the longest duration.

Instead of municipalities spending money on treatment after the fact – Fire Chief Tony Bavota says Burlington has spent about $1 million on cancer treatments covered by presumptive legislation, not to mention other work-related illnesses – Jones wants to see change in firefighters' behaviour on the fire ground.

This change, Jones says, starts with constant monitoring, which Burlington has already implemented – all 10 of the department's frontline apparatuses carry HCN monitors. There is also a mandatory section on the department's incident forms in which officers are required to log the highest recorded HCN value. But Jones says that, more importantly, a cultural change needs to take place. Changing the terminology – saying "cyanide poisoning" instead of "smoke inhalation" – will drive home the seriousness of exposure.

Jones also said he believes that, in the next five years, house fires will be classified as hazmat calls.

"It changes the rule in what we do," he says. "Because now, with a hazmat call, we've got air monitoring, scene perimeter, detox, hot zones. . . ."

The Burlington department has pushed to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for firefighters on scene without air. Responding crews take their masks off only after HCN levels have been determined to be at an acceptable level.

Jones recently delivered his presentation at the Ontario Fire College, which Chief Bavota says was a tipping point for provincial interest in the topic.

"Now Section 21 [the health and safety committee of the Ontario Fire Service] asked him to produce a guidance note for the province," Bavota said.

"When that guidance note is complete, the program will have much more influence in that it will be province-wide. . . This is just one more contribution to that core value [firefighter and public safety]."

The bottom line, Jones says, is a firefighter's responsibility to his or her family, or as guru Billy Goldfeder puts it, the pictures that are in your wallet.

"When I choose not to wear my SCBA, here or there, intentionally or unintentionally, I'm taking time away from [my family]," Jones says.

"But I also have a responsibility to the pictures that are in my crew's wallet. If one of my crew members goes down at a fire occurrence and they weren't wearing their SCBA, their families are going to come to me and say, 'How could you let that happen?'"

For more information on the dangers of HCN, read Fire Fighting in Canada’s February cover story, here.

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