Despite Known Hazards of Wildfire Smoke, Little Is Done to Protect Woodland Firefighters

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While wildfires have long been advertised as a danger to the environment and to the well-being of the general public, their effects on those fighting these dangerous fires have been less publicized. This is the issue tackled in a recent article from The San Francisco Chronicle, which describes the enormous health impacts firefighters battling wildfires are facing. 

The impacts of smoke inhalation on both short-term and long-term health has been well documented, and because of this, citizens are advised to avoid the outdoors or wear masks when wildfires are active. Despite this, wildland firefighters, who are working in the midst of this heavy smoke, are often only equipped with scarves and bandanas to cover their faces. These coverings don’t effectively filter out toxic particles in the air. Without adequate protection, firefighters inhale unsafe quantities of toxins released by the fires on a daily basis. In the past, there have been minimal efforts made to ameliorate this, and only now are respirators meant to reduce these risks beginning to be tested, although it will be a long time before they are actually used. 

The government has also failed to conduct research on the long-term effects of smoke inhalation in wildland firefighters. This lack of research means that a causal association between firefighters’ long-term health impacts and the hazards they faced in the field cannot be made. However, while a definitive relationship can’t be determined, it is clear that firefighters are experiencing diseases more than likely caused by smoke inhalation throughout their career. The Chronicle interviews specific firefighters who once were supremely healthy and at the top of their field, but are now struggling just to survive due to conditions like cancer and sarcoidosis, a harmful lung disease. These impacts can be traced to the harmful materials found in forest fire smoke, which contains not just chemicals from forest materials but also toxins from other materials that burn when the fire spreads, like plastics and metals. One of the most harmful classes of particles inhaled from wildfire smoke is called Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM 2.5). PM 2.5 is incredibly small, so it can’t be effectively coughed out and instead will settle into the lungs. Often these particles contain heavy metals and other highly hazardous materials, which are subsequently absorbed into the bloodstream. Air is generally considered safe to breathe when the level of PM 2.5 in the air is about 50; one study found that at the base camp where wildland firefighters stayed, levels got up to 700. The impacts of these conditions are apparent: in 2019, a large U.S. study concluded that after just five years working in the field, woodland firefighters have a 16% greater chance of death from cardiovascular disease and a 8% greater chance of death from lung cancer, when compared with the general public. A 2022 study from McGill university also found that people simply living near wildfires have a 10% greater risk of brain cancer, which doesn’t even account for the enhanced risk that those not just living near, but actually fighting, these fires face. 

With these massive consequences in mind, action is finally started to be taken on finding ways to protect firefighters from excessive smoke inhalation. While N95 masks have been touted as a solution in the past, it was found that these masks only filter out some particles, but not the toxic gases, released by fires. Engineers are working hard to find a better solution, but it is not an easy task. Respirators must filter out particles and gases, but they also must be sleek enough that they don’t cause overheating. Oxygen masks used for urban firefighters would be impractical, as they are too heavy and hot to be effective for those fighting forest fires. In fact, concerns about overheating is one of the main objections to these respiratory devices. All fire equipment must also meet the standards of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), but so far no respirator prototype has met all of their requirements, which were initially established in 2011. A company called TDA Research has made the most promising prototype yet, but they have’t reached a point in their testing where they’re eligible to apply for NFPA certification, so their success remains to be seen. 

While progress on a sufficient respirator has been slow, some changes have been made to help woodland firefighters who are facing job-related diseases. Recently, the federal government made it easier for former firefighters to obtain workers’ compensation benefits due to the development of issues like cancer, heart conditions, and lung disease. In 2023, the Center for Disease Control began a long-term study to monitor the health of firefighters over time. Another major research effort includes tracking genetic changes in current firefighters to aid in earlier detection and treatment of cancer. With this research and the efforts being made to reduce firefighters’ smoke inhalation, experts hope that they can find ways to reduce the incidence of dangerous diseases in woodland firefighters.

To read the full article by Julie Johnson at the San Francisco Chronicle, click here

For more on wildfires, click here

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