Prevention of Inhalation Injuries

In the emergency response professions there are many examples of inhalation exposures to combustion gases and even chemicals.


Firefighters and Sense of Smell

A November 9, 1999 article by Marilyn Elias in USA Today entitled "Firefighters risk losing sense of smell" revealed that testing by the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation found firefighters to be at risk of losing their sense of smell. Neurologist Alan Hirsch tested 102 Chicago firefighters and found that 48% had a compromised sense of smell despite the use of scba's during their careers. It was also found that these firefighters could not disseminate natural gas or smoke odors from perfume or soap bubbles. One theory for the findings may be that firefighters take their scba's off after the fire is extinguished. This action may compromise the sense of smell. This study should send a red flag up that indicates responders should not rely on their sense of smell as much as in the past.

Terrorism and Sense of Smell

Many chemical weapons of mass destruction also exhibit an odor, especially with impurities. The following table indicates the odors that are commonly associated with these chemical agents.

Type
Name/Symbol
Odor
Choking
Phosgene/CG
Chlorine/Cl
New mown hay
Bleach or swimming pool
Nerve
Tabun/GA
Sarin/GB
Soman/GD
VX
None to Fruity
None to Fruity, (Juicy Fruit gum)
Camphor
Sulfur
Blister
Mustard/H/HD
N series
Lewisite/L
Phosgene Oxide/CX
Garlic odor
Fish odor
Geraniums
Irritating, disagreeable
Blood
Hydrogen Cyanide/AC
Cyanogen Chloride/CK
Bitter almonds or peach kernels
None
Source; Domestic Preparedness Training by Department of Defense

Clandestine Drug Laboratories

One last site in which responders may confront odors that could lead to over-exposure of the respiratory system is at illegal or clandestine drug laboratories. Irritating and toxic odors abound in and around these sites. Be aware of these odors with their potential sources and hazards;

Chemical
Acetone
Ammonia
Ether
Hydrochloric acid
Sodium hydroxide
Sulfuric acid
Toluene
Odor
Fingernail polish remover
Pungent or "cat urine"
Sharp, sweet
Irritating
Irritating
Irritating
Benzene like, aromatic
Hazards
flammable, narcotic
irritating
flammable, anesthetic
corrosive, irritant
caustic, toxic if airborne
corrosive, toxic if airborne
toxic, flammable

Response Actions

Nearly every fire and every odor complaint we respond to have the potential to cause harm because of the chemical world we live in. Knowledge and recognition of what we may be exposed to at these emergencies can prevent needless exposures. It is far better to don our scba's and prevent problems than to expose us to a toxic, dangerous environment. Even though effects may not be apparent at the time of the exposure many small exposures can cause delayed or latent effects. It is in the best interest of all to avoid those problems. When in doubt wear your scba; it less expensive than health problems later in life!

A simple acronym to keep in mind at all incidents is "ASAP" and it stands for "Always Suspicious-Always Prepared". This acronym can become a defensive philosophy in which all responders should subscribe to prevent injuries. At every incident ask yourself "what could harm me in this present circumstance" and then act appropriately. Don your scba facepiece if in doubt, stay out of known and visible vapor clouds and smoke unless adequately protected, use available monitoring instruments to detect contaminants, and seek medical advice or care if you have been exposed. Remember what the wise, old Father of the fire service, Benjamin Franklin, once said; "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". It is as true today as it was in the 1700's.