Cardiovascular and Chemical Exposure Risks in Modern Firefighting


The health and safety risks and hazards of firefighting on the men and women that make up the profession is increasingly well studied and documented. Meaningful and sound research has led to changes in individual fitness priorities, personal protective equipment, first responder personnel activities on the fire-ground, and a better understanding of the overall health risks increasingly associated with firefighting.

Cardiovascular and chemical exposure risks from the combustion of common household contents inside modern structures is understood to be very real. However, researchers have yet to be able to recreate the physical environment of a real modern day fire in such a way that meaningful data could be collected and analyzed.

This study, through amazing partnerships and collaboration between the Illinois Fire Service Institute, UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Globe Manufacturing Company and U.S. Department of Homeland Security – Federal Emergency Management Agency Assistance to Firefighters Grants Program, has recreated virtually every aspect of firefighting realistically, yet safely and in a way that researchers could capture essential data. Using modern building materials and room contents; employing real firefighters executing commonly employed tactics, techniques, and procedures of entry, search, extinguishment, ventilation and overhaul, this study will enable researchers to truly assess risk.

This study is the logical next step in our refinement of what we know, what we think, and what we suspect. It will inform the next steps in research and more importantly, it will help the firefighting profession better protect its most important resource – the firefighter.

Report Summary

Full Interim Report

Purposes of the Study
This study was designed to better understand how operating in a modern fire environment is related to the two leading health issues facing firefighters; namely cardiovascular events and chemical exposures related to carcinogenic risk. We investigated the impact of different tactics (traditional interior attack vs a transitional attack) and different firefighting location/assignment (interior attack, outside operations, outside command, overhaul) as well as measures such as skin cleaning and gross on scene decon to affect these risks.

Motivation for Study
Significant advances have been made in our understanding of the hazards associated with structural firefighting.

  • Research has provided a greater understanding of the development, propagation and dangers of modern residential fires. The fire service has been provided with important tactical guidance that may potentially increase firefighter effectiveness while decreasing risk.
  • Sudden cardiac events are the leading cause of duty-related deaths among firefighters and they are far more likely to occur after fire suppression activity. Substantial evidence suggests that firefighting leads to significant cardiovascular strain.
  • Firefighters have an increased risk for several types of cancer. Fires produce hundreds of toxic compounds. Some are carcinogenic like benzene and certain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Despite these advances in understanding, important questions remain.

  • What is the physiological and chemical impact of the different exposures experienced by firefighters employing differing tactics and conducting various job assignments on the fireground?
  • How do factors related to firefighting effect cardiovascular responses under realistic modern fire environments? How effectively does the body recover over the 12 hours following a response?
  • How – and at what levels – do toxic combustion products get into a firefighter’s body? How much of the absorbed dose comes from skin absorption versus inhalation?