There have been several studies detailing the dangers of prolonged exposure to contaminated PPE as the industry seeks to learn more about the carcinogens firefighters are exposed to on the job in an effort to identify what can be done to better protect them.

In our June issue of LCN, Richard Neale of  LTC Worldwide will respond to a recent article in The Sunday Times that looked at the incidence of certain diseases among retired firefighters. His article will look at ways in which the launderer or garment rental operator can minimise those risks, which might be affected by inadequate cleansing, before re-use, of protective garments worn by firefighters.

According to the report in The Sunday Times (25 February), a study suggested that firefighters are three times as likely to die of cancer, as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals that become embedded in their clothing or inhaled during fires. The rate of deaths from cancer in firefighters under the age of 75 is “up to three times higher than in the general population”, said Anna Stec, professor of fire toxicity at the University of Central Lancashire.

Skin cancer is one of the highest risks, linked to toxins that contaminate fire crews’ uniforms in blazes. Mouth and throat cancers from breathing the same chemicals are also common, said Stec. Such chemicals, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), penetrate cells, causing deadly mutations in DNA.

“Cancer incidence is far higher among firefighters than the general population,” said Stec.

“Firefighters are exposed to toxins both in the fire and afterwards because soot left on their clothing is absorbed via the skin or inhaled.”

Stec pursued two sets of research. In one, she took 650 samples from 140 firefighters’ skin, clothing, fire engines and offices. Her paper, in Scientific Reports, a Nature journal, said: “In almost all cases high or very high quantities of carcinogenic PAHs were identified.”

In a second study of UK death certificates, preliminary results suggest firefighters experience high rates of cancer of the skin, mouth, throat, liver and kidney. This mirrors studies published earlier in America and Europe (see below).


Managed services

At present, European Union legislation requires employers to safeguard the health and safety of their employees at work. In the UK, this is enshrined in the Health and Safety at Work Regulations.

In June 2017, Bristol Uniforms was awarded the contract to supply firefighting PPE for a new Collaborative Procurement Framework, accessible to all Local Authority Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) across the UK. PPE supplied by Bristol Uniforms within the Framework includes full structural ensemble, a layered jacket, rescue jacket and USAR (urban search and rescue) ensemble.

The Framework contract also includes the supply of managed services for cleaning and maintenance, which is delivered by Bristol Uniforms’ two dedicated in-house service centres. Each FRS can opt for either a fully managed service or purchase only contract via the Framework.

The managed care programme is designed to allow fire and rescue services to rely on the manufacturer to supply this lifetime garment care process rather than use scarce resources to set up facilities to undertake these in-house. The programme includes cleaning, decontamination, inspection, maintenance, garment tracking, collection, delivery, stock support and online ordering via a Wardrobe Management System.

Bristol has two service centres in the UK, in Bristol and Rainham, Essex, with facilities abroad managed by appointed distributors. In the UK, a 7-day turnaround service from collection to return delivery provides garment scanning, washing, repair, inspection and tracking.

The service Bristol provides complies with PPE at Work Regulations 1992, and is accredited to BS EN ISO 9001: 2015. The service centres have fully trained staff allocated solely to the provision of care for the lifetime of the PPE.

The Collaborative Agreement Framework was created by a dedicated project team led by Kent FRS. It follows the success of the South East and Eastern Region framework established in 2010.

London Fire Brigade was closely involved with the formation of the Collaborative Framework. It chose a fully managed service contract, which include cleaning and maintenance. Bristol Uniforms collects soiled or damaged garments, transports them to its Eastern Service Centre in Rainham for thorough cleaning, inspection and repair and returns them within seven days. After an incident, kit is collected by Bristol to be cleaned and if necessary repaired. Reserve stock is held on station so that kit put in for laundry is replaced by clean kit of the right size.


Changes to current standards

Contaminated protective turnout gear can expose firefighters to life-threatening chemicals, biological agents, and particulate matter, so they must be cleaned properly to ensure the health and safety of firefighters. Proper decontamination of soiled gear is essential. In the US, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network found that firefighters are significantly more likely to develop cancer due to their exposure to carcinogens. As a result, the industry is focused on researching these harmful toxins in order to develop a standard protocol that will require frequent and thorough cleaning of PPE to prevent long-term exposure to contamination following a fire or major incident.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set regulations around PPE from the selection through to the retiring of elements worn by firefighters. NFPA 1851 establishes requirements for selection, care, and maintenance of PPE to reduce health and safety risks associated with improper maintenance, contamination, or damage.

In a recent meeting (March) of the technical committee responsible for revision of NFPA 1851 (Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting) extensive discussion revolved around proposing modifications in how turnout clothing should be cleaned and, in particular, verified for removal efficiency of harmful contaminants.

Changes have been recommended for more frequent advanced cleaning of turnout clothing (at this stage, the changes have only been proposed). While the current edition of NFPA 1851 prescribes advanced cleaning to be performed at least annually, the new edition, if accepted, will require advanced cleaning at least twice a year. This means that those departments that follow NFPA 1851 will be conducting more frequent cleaning of their gear than before.


High level of protection

During Clean 2017 in Las Vegas, LCN editor Kathy Bowry was able to see first-hand how MarKen PPE has carved its own niche in the cleaning and restoration of uniforms and kit from fire stations and other emergency first responders.

A lot has happened since that visit. The Xeros Technology Group has expanded its US coverage with acquisition of Gloves Inc, which provides PPE cleaning, inspection, and repair services from facilities in Atlanta and Miami. This follows the acquisition of the MarKen PPE Restoration business in July 2017 and further expands the company’s presence in the US firefighting PPE care market. An increasingly stringent US regulatory environment is leading to a significant rise in the outsourcing of the cleaning and inspection of PPE to specialist independent providers such as Gloves and MarKen, says Mark Nichols, chief executive of Xeros. This is driven by increased understanding of the health risks associated with soiled and contaminated PPE and increased awareness of the liability exposure associated with poor compliance. Xeros’ cleaning solution is uniquely positioned to meet this demand, which extends into the petrochemicals, mining and construction industries, he says.

MarKen, which exclusively uses the Xeros cleaning solution, is uniquely positioned to meet this demand, which extends beyond firefighting into the petrochemicals, mining and construction industries. Jeff Lockett, MarKen MD, says: “This acquisition expands Xeros participation in a very important high-performance workwear market where the Xeros technology has the proven ability to clean and extend the life of the gear, while protecting the health and safety of firefighters and other first responders.”

Xeros polymer cleaning meets the cleaning requirements of the following standards and regulations: NFPA 1851 and 1855, OSHA 29 CFR 1910 Part 132, NFPA 1971, and UL Performance Verification.

Prior to using the Xeros system, MarKen needed to do extensive pre-soaking for elements with heavy soot and smoke; this would take 48 hours. Since installing the Xeros system MarKen has reduced pre-soaking by 80%, which allows the company to process turnout gear faster and reduce fire departments’ cleaning costs. Additionally, because the elements are not going through the pre-soaking process, they are able to prolong the life of the firefighters’ elements.