As firefighters, we know that firefighting activities can lead to chemical contamination from a wide variety of materials found in smoke today. There are things we can do within the fire service to reduce exposures. Different types of fire department activities have different types and levels of risk associated with them.

We strongly advise fire departments if they have not, that they should develop or refine policies for decontamination of PPE and skin after live fire exposure to reduce the potential risk of cancer.

These practices should be based upon the latest available information. There is a lot of information out there and more research is ongoing to help these types of practices evolve and be the most effective in “protecting our own.”

The study focused on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) for PPE surface and skin testing. PAHs may go through or around PPE or cross-transfer later from the PPE to the skin during removal. This study also looked at volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hydrocyanide (HCN) which may off-gas from contaminated gear and represent another possible exposure pathway.

A few of the research takeaways were:

  • PPE, neck skin, and hand skin were most prone to PAH contamination during firefighting.
  • The amount of contamination varied by work assignment.
  • The use of hoods was important in reducing exposure to neck skin exposure, even when working outside
  • Gross decontamination using soap and water was most effective method.
  • Infrequent cleaning allows accumulations of toxins
  • Demonstrated the value of cleansing wipes. Not all are equal.

VDFP and Virginia Fire Service Board Efforts

  • Prevention and Care of Firefighter Burns/Carcinogen Reductions and Cancer Risk Program: A two-part program offered in a Train-the-Trainer format. This program covers burn risk reduction; appropriate PPE gear selection, care and maintenance; and the burn care processes, burn center treatment, and returning to full duty protocols. The cancer prevention portion of this program will be offered at Fire Rescue International in August in Atlanta.
  • NFPA 1403 Live Fire Training Program Update: Updates to the program which will make decontamination a required part of all live fire training. We focus on the use of soap and water gross decontamination, the use of cleansing  wipes and the removal of structural firefighting PPE completely prior to entering rehab and the Gross Soap and Water Decontamination at the completion of all VDFP live fire training burns or at burn buildings funded by VDFP Burn Building Grants. We also encourage showering at the completion of all live fire training exposures.  We will also be releasing an updated Live Fire Training Policy for how these types of training events will be conducted.
  • The Virginia Fire Services Board enacted policy stating that decontamination would occur at all live fire training fire training burns occurring during any VDFP funded school (Class A or B) and any live burn occurring in VDFP funded burn buildings (or props).
  • VIDEO: On-Scene Gross Decontamination (Miami-Dade Fire Rescue) 

Additional information or resources can be obtained by contacting Briant Atkins, VDFP Chief Safety Officer at 804-249-2173 or