Cyanide Poisoning can Mimic Other Firefighter Health Issues

Annually, there are an estimated 20,000 residential structure fires that are caused by mattresses, pillows and bedding materials, all of which are likely to contain synthetic materials that release hydrogen cyanide when they burn or smolder.The U.S. Fire...


Annually, there are an estimated 20,000 residential structure fires that are caused by mattresses, pillows and bedding materials, all of which are likely to contain synthetic materials that release hydrogen cyanide when they burn or smolder.

The U.S. Fire Academy and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) have, for years, utilized the same National Institute for Occupational Safety and Heatlh (NIOSH) Firefighter fatality statistics to assist in driving the firefighter wellness initiatives.

These initiatives are based on the statistics that show approximately 50 percent of fireground fatalities are caused by cardiac arrest secondary to poor fitness levels. These statistics have caused a strong push throughout the entire fire service to strongly encourage all firefighters to work out harder and more frequently to ensure they are able to handle the rigors demanded by the job. But what if a portion of the fireground induced cardiac arrests where not caused by poor health but by a silent killer we have not assessed for during emergency treatment or the existing line of duty death investigations required for a firefighter to receive the Public Safety Officers Benefit?

One of the most recent theories currently being evaluated by the International Association of Fire Chiefs is the possibility of cyanide poisoning causing some portion of the cardiac arrests. This question is currently being discussed by Chief Bobby Halton, Chief Editor of Fire Engineering and has been delivered to various audiences around the country. The primary concern regarding cyanide is its ability to cause fatal health issues with firefighters and the inability or unavailability of assessing for the problem. The symptoms of cyanide poisoning mimic the signs and symptoms of a myocardial infarction.

These signs and symptoms of cyanide poisoning include:

  • Early signs of exposure to low concentrations:
  • Rapid breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Eye irritation
  • Pink or red skin color
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Perspiration
  • Later signs of exposure to moderate-high concentrations
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Coma
  • Seizures

As you can see, early symptoms can masquerade as exhaustion (a sign of poor fitness?) or a cardiac event (a sign of poor fitness?), the secondary symptoms may be misconstrued as a singular event initiated by a myocardial infarction (poor fitness & poor nutrition?) when in fact, the problem may have been caused by undiagnosed cyanide poisoning.

Cyanide is found in a large variety of household products - generally considered to be a natural by-product of burning natural fuels such as wool, silk and leather. However, when one truly looks as the chemical make-up of the majority of household items, cyanide is part of almost any plastic-based product. Cyanide is regularly found in polyurethane, nylon, insulation, furniture cushioning, carpets and other building materials and home furnishings. Annually, there are an estimated 20,000 residential structure fires that are caused by mattresses, pillows and bedding materials, all of which are likely to contain synthetic materials that release hydrogen cyanide when they burn or smolder. These same materials when ignited cause a fire to burn two to three times hotter and faster than natural products, causing fires to reach flashover much quicker. As seen above, cyanide is more prevalent and has more significant impacts to the evolution of both the fire dynamics and the smoke by-products of the fire and gaseous environment.

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