Spend an hour online reading wellness websites and popular blogs and you will quickly learn that detox and cleansing are the new buzzwords around health. Google detox, and you will be surprised by the diversity of the people talking about how they can help you improve your body by simply doing a three- to 28-day food fast or juice cleanse. These detox programs can be dangerous if they are delivered by poorly trained or untrained practitioners. As well, programs online are often sold as one size fits all, which can be harmful if you are a smaller person taking medicines intended for someone larger. I think there is tremendous value in a regular detoxification program for firefighters, but I believe it has to be safe and effective and there definitely has to be solid science behind the process.
By far the most frequently asked question in my medical practice is about detoxification or cleansing. Patients ask me how I can help them clean their bodies using a detoxification program. To clarify, we are talking about how the average Joe can remove toxins, restore bodily function and feel rejuvenated. To truly understand the detoxification process in firefighters’ bodies, we need to first explore toxic exposure in the fire service.
We often forget how toxic this planet really is. Since the Second World War, there have been close to 80,000 man-made chemicals created in labs. After completing your morning routine of showering, shaving, moisturizing, applying after-shave lotion and brushing your teeth, you have exposed yourself to, on average, 35 toxic chemicals, of which five are carcinogenic. And all of that happens before you put on your bunker gear and race towards a burning building that is spewing out a cocktail of hazardous chemical substances.
A firefighter’s greatest risk of chemical exposure occurs during fires or hazmat calls, during which he or she can be exposed to chemicals by skin contact or by inhalation. A multitude of chemicals are released from the combustion of building materials and building contents. Perfluorinated compounds and polychlorinated dioxins are two very common chemicals released from walls, fabric, wiring, equipment, furniture, paint and carpets, and are extremely hazardous not to mention potentially deadly.
While one exposure does not mean contraction of cancer, disease or illness, a 25-year career filled with hundreds of fire calls and hundreds situations with potentially hazardous chemicals can and does have an effect on the human body. In my experience treating firefighters, they always remember the one fire that affected their health the most.
According to the International Association of Fire Fighters Presumptive Health Initiative (http://www.iaff.org/hs/phi/), scientific evidence demonstrates that firefighters are at an increased risk of heart disease, lung disease, infectious exposure and cancer. We can assume that chemical exposure is a large reason for the increased risk. Studies looking at toxic chemical exposures also make direct links to other health conditions such as thyroid disease, diabetes, neurological conditions, and auto-immune conditions, to mention a few.
The fire service takes some necessary precautions by asking firefighters to wear their SCBAs and other PPE during the entire fire operation in order to reduce their chemical exposure. As well, the frequent cleaning of PPE is taken very seriously, especially after large fires. Science tells us the majority of toxic chemicals are fat soluble, which allows them to make their way through the skin into the bloodstream if a firefighter is exposed to contaminated bunker gear.
Environmental monitoring or bio-monitoring as a form of exposure testing is on the horizon and will likely become a very important way for firefighters to monitor their health in the future. A quick visit to the IAFF website and you will come across newly posted information on bio-monitoring. Bio-monitoring is the term for testing urine, blood, saliva and stool for toxic chemicals to determine chemical exposure and bio-accumulation. Bio-accumulation is the build-up of heavy metals and chemicals in the human body. While the presence of chemicals does not mean you have a diagnosed condition, we know from a number of studies that toxins have the ability to stress the body, and long-term chemical presence can lead to chronic conditions.
The human body has an amazing ability and capacity to detoxify and eliminate most if not all toxic chemicals over time. From scientific studies, we now know how to help the body remove these chemical toxins, and we will explore how this is done in Part 2 of this firefighter detoxification series in May.
Elias Markou is in private practice in Mississauga, Ont., and is the chief medical officer for the Halton Hills Fire Department. Contact him at
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