It’s a fact. Firefighters develop cancer at higher rates than the general population, with some studies concluding they have twice the risk of developing certain cancers. In fact, firefighters are dying at astonishing rates from specific cancers including melanoma, lung, colon, prostate, rectal and stomach, just to name a few.
Consider these alarming statistics. From 2002 to 2016, 61% of firefighter line-of-duty deaths were cancer-related, according to the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF).
Over this 14-year period, the number of firefighter cancer deaths equated to 1,053
Certainly, firefighters are at risk for other line-of-duty deaths, many of which tragically occur in a matter of seconds. But cancer-related deaths are different in that they typically occur over time after years of exposure to carcinogens. What’s even more concerning, however, is that the “over time” period is dramatically shortening and for good reason: today’s structural fires include materials such as plastic, electronics, rubber, furniture and fabrics coated with flame-retardant materials, all of which produce chemical laden smoke that creates an environment rich in toxins.
When firefighters enter a building to extinguish the fire, they immerse themselves in this toxic smoke and gas. The chemical carcinogens permeate their gear. Even after they leave the fire, they are susceptible to absorbing those toxins through their skin and inhaling them from their gear.
Ultrasonic Cleaning: A protective measure with positive affects
There are a number of measures firefighters and firehouses should take to minimize their inevitable exposure to carcinogens, such as always wearing PPE and SCBA at fires, rinsing and wiping off skin immediately after the fire, storing gear outside of the passenger cab after the fire, and showering and putting on clean clothes after returning to the station. However, there’s another step – the cleaning of the gear – that is undertaken often at the station, and conducted by hand. While this is an important step to take, there is an alternative cleaning method that is more effective than hand cleaning when it comes to removing carcinogens from equipment.
The ultrasonic cleaning process is initiated by generators that produce high frequency electricity. This electricity is then converted into sounds waves through a transducer, which makes the waves vibrate. As the waves travel through water, tiny vacuum bubbles form, and repeatedly implode upon any surface they encounter, gently but thoroughly removing dirt, grease, contaminants – even the toxic particles that permeate Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), such as Self Contained Breathing Apparatuses (SCBAs), gloves, boots, helmets and tools.
“We’re seeing more and more commercial disaster recovery cleaning firms adopt this technology and making it available to firehouses as a means to combat exposure to toxins and carcinogens,” said Frank Pedeflous, President of Omegasonics, a California-based manufacturer of ultrasonic cleaning systems. “Even some firehouses, with the support of the municipalities they serve, are investing in smaller ultrasonic cleaning units to decontaminate gear onsite.”
Manual vs. Ultrasonic Cleaning – there’s no comparison
According to Steve Lakey Jr., Plant Manager with Northwest Safety Clean, a commercial cleaning firm serving the firefighting and emergency response communities in Washington and Oregon, firehouse items have traditionally been manually cleaned if they could not be laundered in commercial washing machines/extractors. “But after introducing ultrasonics to the cleaning process, we noticed that our ultrasonic machines do a better job of getting into the hard to reach crevices and are able to loosen and remove the embedded and baked in soot and contaminants – something we could not achieve as well with hand washing alone,” said Lakey.
MarKen PPE Restoration, a Xeros Technology Company based in Las Vegas, has been using ultrasonic machines since it opened in October, 2010. It uses the technology to clean helmets, boots and the masks of CBA apparatuses. Prior to ultrasonic cleaning, those items were hand washed. “It was a pretty tedious task for the boots. And, each helmet took around 45 minutes to clean by hand because they must be taken apart. It took a while to dissemble a helmet, wash it and put it back together,” said Joey Beeman. General Manager with MarKen. “But now we can process in the boots and helmets in 10 minutes, and we can put three at a time in the ultrasonic tank. What’s more, when they are in the tank cleaning, our staff members can do other things. So, both time and manpower are saved,” added Beeman.
Bottom line: When it comes to removing toxins and carcinogens, if done properly, the ultrasonic cleaning process does a much more thorough and faster job of cleaning firefighting PPE and removing harmful contaminants than hand washing alone.
A side benefit: ultrasonic cleaning is tinker-free
Like athletes, firefighters can be very superstitious about their helmets and how they feel – how snug they are, the precise fit of the chin straps, etc. They sometimes attribute their success in fighting fires to the equipment they use and how it’s been adjusted to suit their unique preferences. When cleaning gear by hand, much of it must be taken apart, thereby undoing any custom adjustments that the firefighters may have made. To put it plainly, firefighters don’t like that.
However, with ultrasonic cleaning, most items do not have to be disassembled to achieve a thorough cleaning. The ultrasonic technology does the job with the gear intact. The firefighters, in turn, don’t have to readjust their equipment when they receive it back after cleaning. So, there are superstitions honored on the front end and time and frustration saved on the back end.
Combatting carcinogens with ultrasonic technology is gaining momentum
Pedeflous says he’s seeing much more interest in ultrasonic cleaning technology as more and more studies reveal the innate dangers firefighters face with regard to carcinogen exposure and cancer risk. “Some fire houses are investing in ultrasonic machines and using them on premise. Others are actively seeking out commercial cleaners that use the technology and cater to the unique health concerns firefighters have by virtue of their line of work,” Pedeflous added.
Additionally, certain states like California are putting laws into place that are more stringent in terms of enforcing compliance with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards – in particular 1851, the standard on selection, care, and maintenance of protective ensembles for structural firefighting and proximity firefighting, and 1855, the standard on selection, care, and maintenance of protective ensembles for technical rescue incidents. While these laws don’t mandate a specific manufacturers or brands of cleaning technologies, they do have requirements such as the chemicals/cleaning detergents that must be used, the water temperature used and types of machines that can be used to clean the equipment. Ultrasonic machines are an approved method of properly and safely cleaning equipment.
Currently, Texas has a legislative act in place, and California will have a similar act enacted this year. And, other states are expected to follow suit.
Given all the data coming out about cancer in the firefighting industry, many departments that have not had a plan for inspecting and cleaning their gear are finally realizing that this is a procedure that cannot be overlooked. However, many departments are not set up to do this in house so they have started sending them to commercial firms to not only clean and repair their gear on a routine basis but to also document all of their maintenance. NFPA 1851 dictates that gear shall be inspected and cleaned with full documentation a minimum of once a year.
“Dirty gear used to be considered a ‘badge of honor’ by firefighters. However, recent studies are demonstrating that this mentality is, in part, what is making firefighters sick and even killing them,” Lakey said. “But there’s been a recent shift in the culture where firefighters are now taking more pride in having clean and well-maintained equipment for the safety of not only themselves, but also their families and coworkers – and that is a welcome and much needed change.”
About the author:
Frank Pedeflous is the president of Omegasonics, a California-based manufacturer of ultrasonic cleaning systems. For more information on Omegasonics and ultrasonic cleaning technology, visit www.omegasonics.com