Heavy Metal Exposure & Cancer

February 29, 2020

Do you remember the auto fire you had the other night? Nothing special. Just another fully involved car with heavy smoke pouring from the engine compartment. You did as you were trained: proper PPE, breathing apparatus, and lots and lots of water. It went out easy enough. You reloaded the hose and headed back to the station, just like you’ve done a hundred times before. Arriving back at the station, you climbed into the shower and grabbed a container of body wash that someone had left in the shower and cleaned up. Good enough, right? Well, maybe not!

There has been a lot of talk about cancer in the fire service lately. After researching this subject, it is apparent that exposure to toxic heavy metals from smoke, contaminated flood waters, and a process known as toxic “hand-off” has been greatly overlooked.

“Use of a cationic-based soap/cleaner can help us properly decontaminate ourselves
and our equipment.”

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), heavy metals—or cationic metal oxides (CMOs)—are known cancer-causing carcinogens. Toxic hand-off is the process of taking these contaminants from an incident and spreading them anywhere we touch, just like how germs are spread without washing your hands. Why is this significant? Heavy metals bind to skin and surfaces with a strong electrostatic bond and are not easily removed with commonly used (anionic) soaps and wipes. Given a firefighter’s increased exposures to toxic chemicals from fires, it makes sense to try to mediate this exposure from as many directions as possible, particularly because even microscopic quantities of heavy metals are dangerous. When we are at a fire, we get covered in contaminates, which are then quietly taken from an incident back to the station—and potentially home where our families could be getting exposed to the same toxins we are. We can address the toxic hand-off of unseen carcinogens by properly decontaminating equipment, PPE, and ourselves. If we treat these unseen contaminants as germs, we can stop the spread and reduce our exposure and prevent exposing our loved ones.

Research on heavy metals

A study done by Underwriters Laboratory (UL) called “Firefighter Exposure to Smoke Particulates” collected smoke particulates containing multiple heavy metals, including arsenic, cobalt, chromium, mercury, lead, and phosphorous. (Note: All fires are different, and hazmat exposures can be different from one fire to the next.) Further, according to “Characterization of Contaminants on Firefighter’s Protective Equipment: A Firefighter’s Potential Exposure to Heavy Metals During a Structure Fire” by Eastern Kentucky University, heavy metals were
also found in soot. Other studies have shown microscopic amounts of cadmium, chromium, copper, and lead adhere to turnout gear and equipment.

We are exposed to heavy metals on just about every fire we go on. And in today’s fires, we are not just exposed to natural materials burning; the synthetics used in households emit CMOs, which, as noted, are cancer-causing carcinogens. Firefighters have a higher likelihood of developing cancer over other occupations because modern fires contain chemicals and metals that didn’t exist in years past. For example, a burning carpet can yield lead oxide, stainless steel can flash off hexavalent chromium, and other metals come from burning exotic glues, finishes and electronics. Metal oxides stick to skin through a strong electrostatic bond, different from
hydrocarbons, dirt, germs and grime; therefore, when we attempt to decontaminate after a fire, the current commonly used soaps and wipes are not sufficient for removing heavy metals.

Cleaning needed

For years, we have used regular soaps and wipes, but the cancer problem seems to continue, and may be increasing, so we should examine what makes up these soaps and wipes. Most soaps and wipes that are in use today are based on anionic surfactants, and are not completely effective at removing metals. To identify an anionic soap or wipe, look for ingredients such as cocamidopropyl betaine, tetrasodium EDTA, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium cocoate, sodium palm kernelate, parabens, betains, Aloe vera or other skin moisturizer (anionic-based cleaners require moisturizers, but moisturizers can help carry metal oxides deeper
into the skin layers).

Cleaners and soaps that are cationic-based can safely remove toxic heavy metals as well as hydrocarbons from soot, dirt, and germs, and do not dry out skin. Cationic-based products contain isostearamidopropyl morpholine lactate (ISML), and never any skin softeners or moisturizers. Developing an awareness among firefighters about the importance of appropriate skin and equipment decontamination cleaners should be an important part of preventing exposures to potentially cancer-causing elements.

Right now, we are most likely preparing our food and sleeping in our quarters with these CMOs, even after we consider ourselves clean. We are chronically exposed to heavy metals throughout a shift. Then we are unknowingly exposing our families at home. We are repeatedly coming in contact with these toxins every time we respond to an emergency in our apparatus or train with our equipment that hasn’t been properly decontaminated. Using regular anionic soaps and wipes may be making the problem worse, but if we use the correct products and treat these unseen toxins like we treat germs, we can stop the potential for toxic hand-off. Use of a cationic-based soap/cleaner can help us properly decontaminate ourselves and our equipment. The bottom line: A culture shift for science-based firefighter hygiene must happen, and we need to be more aware of these unseen killers.

By Keith Cowell

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