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Between fighting fires and responding to other emergencies, fire fighter personal protective equipment (PPE) is exposed to a wide range of toxic chemicals, biological pathogens, and other hazardous substances. It is well recognized that these contaminant exposures can pose significant dangers to fire fighters’ immediate and long-term health, with increased risk to cancer topping the list of dangers.

It is well understood that fire fighters are exposed to contaminants, those contaminants soil fire fighter PPE, and the soiled PPE cross-contaminates everything it comes in contact with. As a consequence, turnout clothing is being cleaned more frequently; however, it is still not known if current or new cleaning procedures adequately remove such contaminants from PPE.

While general cleaning procedures have been established in NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, more science is needed to support, clarify and enhance those procedures. Beginning in late 2015, a four-phase PPE research project was initiated to use scientific methodology to identify and establish procedures for ensuring optimum contaminant removal from fire fighter PPE. Further progress in this effort is described below.

Firefighter PPE washing

Project organization and principal investigation areas

The Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) was awarded nearly $900,000 in late 2015 through the Assistance to Firefighter Grant (AFG) program. The Foundation is coordinating the work of multiple partners, including the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), one of the leading research facilities in the country. Other project partners include International Personnel Protection, Inc. and selected providers of fire fighter clothing cleaning services, including Gear Cleaning Solutions (GCS), ECMS, Inc., L.N. Curtis & Sons, and Northwest Safety Clean. In addition, the project is utilizing a panel of fire service and clothing manufacturer industry representatives for technical advice.

The overall research effort is organized into four key areas of activity:

  1. Identify Target Contaminants: This part of the project is focused on identifying persistent chemical and biological contaminants in fire fighter PPE, and, once those are known, selecting target substances and micro-organisms that represent the broad range of hazardous substances to which fire fighters are routinely exposed. This phase is also examining different methods for recreating fireground exposures in laboratory settings (contaminating samples in the lab that represent gear exposed in the work environment).
  2. Establish Soil and Chemical Contamination/Decontamination Procedures: Work is on-going to develop and validate detailed procedures that determine the effectiveness of laundering and other cleaning methods to remove specific soils and chemical contaminants. This effort has involved devising ways to contaminate turnout clothing samples in ways that replicate field exposure and ensure reliable analysis of contamination levels. This work is being applied to the investigation of cleaning parameters for the ability to remove soot and different types of chemical contaminants from turnout clothing.
  3. Establish Biological Contamination/Disinfection or Sanitization Procedures: A complimentary project phase has involved developing and validating specific procedures that determine the effectiveness of laundering or disinfection/sanitization processes that remove/deactivate biologically-based contaminants, such as blood-borne pathogens and other dangerous microorganisms. This work has principally led to methodologies to show the degree to which regular cleaning and antimicrobial agents kill and remove harmful bacteria from turnout clothing materials.
  4. Draft Overall Fire Service Guidance: The overall effort is proceeding toward the preparation of proposed cleaning assessment techniques and criteria that will be used to qualify different cleaning methods, agents, and technologies. This methodology is being put together with clear and definitive information for the fire service industry (fire fighters, fire departments, clothing manufacturers, material suppliers, cleaning/care organizations, and cleaning agent or equipment manufacturers) to define appropriate and verified approaches for properly cleaning fire fighter protective clothing and equipment.

One of the primary outputs of the project being developed is a cleaning validation method that will involve having laboratory-contaminated samples put into surrogate clothing (think an outer shell with slots that hold the contaminated samples) and then subjected to the intended wash process. The analysis of the samples will result in measures that indicate how much of the specific types of contaminants were removed during cleaning. This approach is envisioned as a means for verifying the effectiveness of independent service providers who routinely perform advanced cleaning of turnout clothing. It is also expected to aid cleaning equipment, agent, and process companies in designing optimized cleaning and sanitization processes for turnout clothing.

The Foundation also supported a preliminary research study that contributed to some of the early work in the DHS grant activity. This small project performed by Intertek Testing Services looked at methods for evaluating chemical contaminants in used/soiled turnout clothing and investigated methods for contaminating clothing material specimens. One of the examined methods used a small scale set up for creating smoke from burning a known fuel.  As sometimes happens during research, this method was found to lack the necessary reproducibility and the study was not completed as originally scoped. A more suitable method involving the combination of chemical contaminant methods was eventually recommended. Intertek did produce an Interim report. (PDF)

Potential impacts of this project

This AFG research project was borne out of an NFPA 1851 task group and that task group is anticipating recommending additional changes to NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, based on the results of this research. Preliminary modifications to the cleaning procedures provided in NFPA 1851 by the responsible Technical Committee have been recommended in the first draft revision of the standard. These changes include a revamped approach to turnout clothing and preliminary cleaning validation procedures. The task group and Technical Committee are continuing their work for creating definitive procedures for how turnout clothing is cleaned and how cleaning will be validated for removal of contaminants. These changes are open for public comment and will be considered in preparing the second draft of the revised standard.

Other groups will likely use the results of this study to further refine their procedures and processes and NIOSH is expecting to publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals. This impact of this research will be broad and far-reaching and this research is incredibly important for finding effective ways to reduce the number of exposures to toxic contaminants.

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Is this issue important to you?  Do you want to help address fire fighter safety and health? If you want to be on our mailing list (used only for this project), please provide your e-mail address. We will notify you when interim and final reports/updates are available.

If you want to reach out to the NFPA 1851 cleaning task group chair, you can email Tim Tomlinson.