Ask anyone about dangerous occupations and being a firefighter will inevitably make the top of the list. What most people do not realize, though, is that it isn’t the fire, or even the building collapsing around them that is the most dangerous: it’s the toxic material found in fire smoke. This is even more true, today, because our homes and commercial buildings are increasingly filled with chemicals in plastics, foams, fabrics and other materials that weren’t in existence not all that long ago.
Breathing smoke during or even following a fire is hazardous because not all materials burn cleanly, resulting in toxic-laced smoke and soot being produced. These substances can be extremely harmful to anyone breathing them in. Even though firefighters wear protective clothing, masks and carry oxygen tanks, not everything seals well enough to remove all toxins.
Different types of fires release different substances. Every fire produces smoke that contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and particulate matter, which is microscopic solids or liquids suspended in the smoke. Particulates have the ability to penetrate into the lungs and blood stream and may cause DNA mutations, heart attacks and other serious issues. Depending on type, specific fires can contain toxic materials, such as:
- acid gases
- sulfur dioxide
- nitrogen oxides
- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
- various metals
When carbon monoxide is inhaled, oxygen in the body is depleted, which can lead to headaches, heart conditions and reduced alertness. Particulates that reach the lungs can cause a wide range of health issues, such as shortness of breath, respiratory irritation, as well as make conditions like asthma and heart disease worse. Increased physical exertion can make cardiovascular issues more pronounced during exposure to carbon monoxide and particulate matter, which creates a perfect storm of opportunity for firefighters to be susceptible to the worst of these effects.
Inhaling smoke for even a short time can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. The odor is often nauseating. Breathing becomes more difficult. Even more serious, there is the potential for long term health effects from exposure to the various components of smoke. For example, asbestos was supposedly banned from construction in the U.S. in 1980, but it is still present, not only in older buildings but also newer construction where contractors have gotten around the regulations. Exposure to asbestos can cause various health issues, the most serious and well-known is mesothelioma, cancer of the lungs, abdomen and heart.
Common sense would indicate that exposure to smoke should be limited, but, of course, that is difficult, if not impossible, when charging into burning buildings is in your job description on your website. The more research that is done on the effects of toxic substances in smoke, the clearer the risk to firefighters.
Whenever you see a fire like the one below, please evacuate and stay safe!