Researchers have found that firefighters may face an increased risk for heart disease from exposures that occur while working during the overhaul stage, according to a recent study in the August 2010 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
The study -- conducted by the University of Cincinnati, Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. and the Chicago Fire Department -- concluded that more than 70 percent of particulates released during fires are "ultrafine." These particulates are invisible to the naked eye but are able to be inhaled.
Since coronary heart disease is the No. 1 killer of firefighters in the U.S., researchers say this is important information and that firefighters -- particularly in those with poor physical fitness or personal health -- could be predisposed to heart disease.
The researchers found that the levels of ultrafine particulates were highest during overhaul; both in indoor and outdoor structure fires as well as vehicle fires.
According to the study, while firefighters are required to wear breathing apparatus during the knockdown stage, many are not required to use the equipment during overhaul.
"Firefighters simply can't avoid inhaling these ultrafine particles when they are not wearing their protective breathing apparatus and, unfortunately, they routinely remove it during overhaul," UC professor of environmental health Stuart Baxter, PhD, said in a statement.
Baxter attributed part of the reason that firefighter go without the equipment during the overhaul stage to its weight.
"Much of this ultrafine exposure could be avoided through equipment improvements and more rigid safety protocols for fire suppression and by including additional workers who could be rotated in to reduce the physical and emotional burden of the job."
In the study, researchers conducted a series of simulated house and vehicle fires and measured the amount and specific characteristics of breathable particulates released during combustion. It is the first study to characterize the size and distribution of particulates during domestic fires.
Funding for the study came from the AFG Fire Prevention and Safety Grants Program.