Firefighters and responders have known for decades that smoke is harmful to their health, but the latest studies have shown that the microscopic materials that become airborne during fires are far more deadly than ever realized. That's because of the proliferation of nanotechnology – particles that are one billionth of a meter in size - that are found in today’s consumer products.
Capt. Peter McBride Ottawa (Canada) Fire Services spoke of the dangers of nanotechnologies, which contain known cancer causing materials, at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis. He is a safety officer in Ottawa, responsible for the health and safety of the firefighters in his department.
He became acutely interested in nanotechnologies when a huge downtown sporting goods store burned and belched acrid black smoke for blocks. Carbon fiber sporting goods, including thousands of skis, burned and emitted microscopic particles that coated everything, particularly his white department-issued SUV. He noticed stubborn black deposits on the SUV that just wouldn’t come off.
“After three washings and two applications of lacquer thinner, it still wouldn’t come off,” McBride said.
As the safety officer, he became concerned about what kind of damage that material would do to his firefighters, their gear and perhaps their families.
Realizing smoke was an inherent hazard of firefighting, he set out to see exactly what that black goop was on his SUV and how to best protect his crews from its hazards.
“It’s not all black and white being a safety officer,” he said. “There’s a lot of gray... I am OK with unsafe, but I am not OK with dangerous.”
And what he found is that when material with nanotechnology burns, it emits dangerous particulates.
The basic components of smoke are well known aerosols, gases and particulates, McBride said, but the new component is nanotechnology.
And those new consumer products using nanotechnologies, like flat screen televisions and many items that have been powder coated, release compounds with unknown and not well understood health risks when burned.
That’s why he requires firefighters to wear SCBAs all the time, even during overhaul. It’s also because of those risks that McBride said he has his firefighters hose off their gear at the scene and then put them all in plastic bags, as if they were hazardous material, before they return to the station. Firefighters are also encouraged to clean as much of the material off their skin at the scene as possible and then bathe immediately after the fire.
In European countries, there are wash stations for each firefighter to clean their boots and turnout gear before entering the living quarters of the stations, McBride said. “Maybe they know something we don’t,” he said.
Taking those precautions means that the transfer of the cancer causing materials to personal property and, worse, home to the families of firefighters is mitigated, McBride said.
“I am not against nanotechnologies,” McBride said. “I am against us not doing anything to protect ourselves from the known dangers.”