Nozzlehead: Use Your Exhaust System!

Dear Nozzlehead: I am at my wit’s end and don’t know where to turn. I am shocked at my chief and my department.

My department is fairly progressive, well-funded and well-trained. We operate out of a nice fire hall with two engines, one ladder, one emergency rescue, one lake rescue and one brush unit, and we are pretty busy. The fire hall itself is eight years old and well-maintained. We have a working building hose exhaust system in place for every apparatus. My problem: We are forbidden to use it half the time.

Our safety officer and the chief fire officer prohibit us from hooking up the system hose while backing any apparatus into the bays, as we have no drive-through bays. We are told diesel exhaust from a warm engine is “clean” and it’s too dangerous to hook an exhaust hose to an apparatus before it is parked.

Many of us disagree with this. We have demonstrated that you can safely back an apparatus, stop it before the exhaust pipe crosses the door, hook the exhaust hose up and then continue to safely back in. Thousands of departments do this every day-safely. According to the safety officer and chief fire officer, either they are all wrong or we are not to be trusted or trained to do this safely.

In addition to breathing in carcinogens, all of our bunker gear and extra uniforms are stored in lockers along the wall and between the apparatus. They soak up diesel exhaust all day long. How many cancer reports do we need to read-reports that detail not only the dangers of breathing this in but also the dangers of absorption through the skin?

Our safety officer requires us to wash our gear after every fire and training burn. I get that and support that. But why is diesel exposure different?

I don’t know where to go next to change their minds. I’ve pushed this issue using cancer facts, diesel exhaust facts and simple common sense. Am I wrong? Should I drop this or is it worth pursuing? Perhaps you can offer some thoughts on diesel exhaust and backing procedures? We spent a lot of money on our exhaust removal systems only to use them when apparatus are pulling out-when the apparatus bay is empty. But when humans are in it, we can’t use the system.

-Can’t Breathe In Canada

Dear Squeeze & Cough, eh?

I’m sorry to hear that you are at your “wit’s end.” I have spent most of my life at my “wit’s end”-at the limit of my mental resources (aka utterly at a loss). Actually, I find myself there less and less as I get older, as I now prefer to put people at their own wit’s end and preserve my wits (and especially the end) for when I need them most. As I get older, I find that it takes me longer to reach my wit’s end, and by then, the other party has realized that I am correct.

An issue like you describe is one where you should get to your wit’s end quickly because the logic is pure stupidity-kinda like putting on a seatbelt after you get to the scene, wearing your mask after you leave the building or sizing up the building after you burned it down.

To the claim of your firehouse brain surgeons that diesel fumes from a warm engine are clean … seriously? That officer could NOT be more wrong! The EPA classifies diesel exhaust as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” According to Michael Thun, chief epidemiologist for the American Cancer Society (ACS), studies of people regularly exposed to diesel exhaust found their risk of lung cancer increased by up to 50%. Further, according to ACS, diesel exhaust is primarily linked to lung cancer, but it is suspected that many other cancers, such as those of the larynx, pancreas, bladder and kidney, may also be associated with diesel exhaust. In addition, as a major source of outdoor air pollution, diesel exhaust is believed to play a role in other health problems, such as eye irritation, headaches, lung damage, asthma and other lung diseases, heart disease and possibly immune system problems.

Exhaust from diesel engines is made up of both gases and soot. The gas portion is mainly comprised of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur oxides and hydrocarbons. According to Thun, diesel exhaust contains roughly 100 times more of the soot materials than ordinary gas, which makes diesel more of a concern than other emissions.

I figure you will go back to your fire hall (firehouse or fire station for those of us south of the border), and someone would say “Oh, the American Cancer Society is full of crap” or something like that. So here’s a bit more for their soot-filled brains to suck up:

  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization (WHO). Its major goal is to identify causes of cancer. The IARC classifies diesel engine exhaust as “carcinogenic to humans,” based on sufficient evidence that it is linked to an increased risk of lung cancer, as well as limited evidence linking it to an increased risk of bladder cancer.
  • The National Toxicology Program (NTP) is formed from parts of several U.S. government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The NTP has classified exposure to diesel exhaust particulates as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” based on limited evidence from studies in humans and supporting evidence from lab studies.
  • The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is part of the CDC that studies exposures in the workplace. NIOSH has determined that diesel exhaust is a “potential occupational carcinogen.”

Now, let’s try this quick little math quiz: How many firefighters do you know who have been backed over by the apparatus? How many firefighters do you know who have or had cancer? Do the math. That should about do it.

But let’s address the issue of backing the apparatus and your bosses worrying about that being more dangerous than breathing the rear end of the apparatus. I spoke to one manufacturer who suggested this insanely complicated solution:

1. Stop the fire apparatus before the bay.
2. Place a visible backer behind the rig. (Driver: Don’t ever move it until directed.)
3. Have a firefighter hook up the hose.
4. Back it up slowly.
5. Take a deep breath.

WHAT?! Absolutely nuts. It will never work. Neither will motorized apparatus, SCBA, radios, bunker gear, thermal imagers, transitional attack, master stream blitz attacks, bail out systems, female firefighters, command/control and hazard zone management-at least, probably not, according to your fire hall brain surgeons.

There are many exhaust systems out there. Some use hoses, some have self-contained on-board filter systems, and others use massive fans to rapidly clear out the bay air. Whatever your department uses, makes sure it meets industry standards and that the use is based on the manufacturer recommendations.

Look, do whatever you can to NOT breathe that crap. Continue to pursue this issue and pray that none of your members ever need to make a claim due to their diagnosis of cancer being job-related, especially tied to unnecessarily breathing in diesel exhaust.

Long-term exposure to breathing exhaust fumes can absolutely negatively impact the brain-maybe that’s part of your department’s leadership problem. missing image file

Nozzlehead Notes

Visit and download their FCSN paper entitled “Taking Action Against Cancer in the Fire Service,” and pass it on to each and every firefighter you know. Be sure to read the information in that paper regarding diesel exhaust. Yeah, it’s in there. We don’t make this stuff up!

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