Showering, cleaning gear necessary for firefighter health, study says

Research presented this week in Fort McMurray suggests firefighters need to shower and clean their gear more to try and limit contact with cancer-causing chemicals. 

Dozens of researchers, health workers and community members met in Fort McMurray Friday and Saturday to share information about the effects of the 2016 wildfire.

The wildfire forced Fort McMurray to evacuate and almost 2,400 buildings were destroyed.

Firefighter hygiene was among the topics discussed at the forum and was one of the focuses of Nicola Cherry’s research. 

Cherry, tripartite chair of occupational health with the University of Alberta, researched the levels of carcinogens in firefighters’ urine and blood in the weeks and years after the wildfire. 

About two weeks after the 2016 wildfire, she sampled the urine and blood from 185 firefighters and looked for traces of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons —a carcinogen that is found after organic material burns.

Jody Butz, Fort McMurray fire chief, says the findings validated some of the practices they have been doing since the wildfire in 2016. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

She found the carcinogen was present in firefighters, but they were particularly high in firefighters that didn’t have the opportunity to shower and change their clothes in the first week of the fire. 

She hypothesizes that because the firefighters weren’t changing or showering, the carcinogens stayed on their skin — which can absorb the chemical. 

“One of the problems with carcinogens is there’s no safe level… We should be looking for ways to make sure that that is kept to the absolute minimum.”

She said it’s possible to ingest the chemicals through food or water, but they don’t believe that’s the cause.

She said those who had the opportunity to shower and change their clothes more often had lower levels of the carcinogen in their system, and those who didn’t have higher levels. 

One of her recommendations coming out of this study is that firefighters need to put a higher priority on skin hygiene, even in the midst of an emergency. 

Nicola Cherry, tripartite chair of occupational health at the University of Alberta, found that showering and changing clothes more frequently will help reduce the amount of carcinogens in firefighters. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Wood Buffalo Regional Fire Chief Jody Butz went to the forum to learn more about the research on the mental and physical health of firefighters. 

“They validate a lot of what we’ve been thinking,” said Butz. 

Since the wildfire, Fort McMurray area firefighters have been working to keep contaminants to a minimum. They have cleaned gear, kept contaminants away from the firehall and take showers as soon as possible after a fire, said Butz.

Mental health issues

One of Cherry’s other key findings was that the local firefighters showed more signs of PTSD, anxiety and depression, compared to firefighters who were from out of town. 

That’s not surprising to firefighter Curtis Robinson. 

During the fire, his wife evacuated while he stayed in town to fight the fire. 

“Her stress and my stress combined of not knowing if she got out, where she is, and me having to stay and do my job, that was definitely a high stress point,” said Robinson. 

But over time that stress has lessened in part due to the mental health support teams that came up after the fire. 

“I really feel that my mental health is if not stayed the same, has actually increased in resiliency from that help.”

He said he’s glad scientists are examining the issue, because many firefighters are looking for answers about the physical and mental health effects of the fire. 

Curtis Robinson says there was added stress during the fire because his wife evacuated and he had no way of knowing if she was safe. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

“If you don’t have answers, you start to think about things … people will put their own fears in place and that’s most of the problem.”

Cherry is doing clinical studies of the firefighters’ mental and physical health to continue her research, including CT scans for the participating firefighters. 

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