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 Cancer Prevention:

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Decontamination


Firefighters face numerous hazards while performing in the line of duty; and, the risks of severe and potentially fatal injuries from the dangerous conditions

at a fire scene are well documented. In addition to the obvious physical hazards, fires generate toxic contaminants, some that are known or suspected to cause cancer.

In 2010, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) initiated a multi-year study of approximately 30,000 fire fighters from Chicago,

Philadelphia, and San Francisco Fire Departments. The study, completed in late 2015, sought to better understand the potential link between firefighting and cancer.

Notable findings from the research include: 1, 2

  1. Firefighters had more cancer deaths and cancer cases than expected.
  2. The increase in cancer was primarily due to digestive, oral, respiratory, and urinary cancers.
  3. There were about twice as many malignant mesothelioma cases than expected. Asbestos exposure is likely in firefighting
  4. and is the primary cause of this disease.
  5. The findings suggest fire fighters are at higher risk of cancers of the digestive, oral, respiratory, and urinary systems when
  6. compared to the general population.


Protecting members with PPE is a crucial form of loss reduction in the fire service, and a thorough PPE maintenance program is just as important in protecting

members. NFPA 1851 Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting (2014)

addresses the care and maintenance of turnout gear including decontamination. The standard requires the wearer to evaluate their PPE after each use

for immediate application of the appropriate cleaning level, further distinguishing between routine cleaning and advanced cleaning.

Routine Cleaning: -The light cleaning of ensembles or elements performed by the end user without taking the elements out of service.

Advanced Cleaning: - The thorough cleaning of ensembles or elements by washing with cleaning agents.

Additionally, NFPA 1581 Standard on Fire Department Infection Control Program (2015) provides minimum requirements to identify and limit the potential of an

infectious exposure to fire department members. 4 In consideration of NFPA standards 1851 and 1581, it is recommended that individuals systematically evaluate

and clean their gear. Areas to consider in developing decontamination best practices include the following:


Scene Decontamination Steps:

  1. Perform gross field decontamination at the scene to remove as much soot and particulates as possible.
  2. Use cleansing wipes to remove as much soot as possible from the head, neck, jaw, throat, underarms, and hands immediately.
  3. Use cleansing wipes to remove visible debris from helmets, facemasks, and other equipment.
  4. Remove gear and store it in a separate container away from the cab or passenger compartment until it can be decontaminated.


Station Decontamination Steps:

  1. Change your clothes and wash them immediately after a fire.
  2. Inspect and clean turnout gear according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
  3. Scrub soiled gear or run it through a commercial washer, where available.
  4. Wear protective gloves and eye/face protection during equipment inspections.
  5. Clean the hood, face piece, gloves, helmet, flaps, and suspension system according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
  6. Do not take contaminated clothes or PPE home or store the materials in your vehicle.
  7. Decontaminate fire apparatus interiors after fires.
  8. Keep bunker gear out of living and sleeping quarters.
  9. Shower thoroughly after a fire.


A thorough and properly implemented decontamination program will help prevent exposure to higher levels of contaminants and related carcinogens. Implementing and enforcing the performance of follow-up decontamination activities will also help protect members from exposure.


DISCLAIMER: This is a sample guideline furnished to you by VFIS. Your organization should review this guideline and make the necessary modifications to meet your organization’s needs. The intent of this guideline is to assist you in reducing exposure to the risk of injury, harm, or damage to personnel, property, and the general public. For additional information on this topic, contact your VFIS Risk Control Representative at (800) 233-1957.


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