Expert Advice on Contaminated Gear Hazards and Cleaning

March 1, 2005
Haley Jorgensen interviews experts who report on how contaminated gear exposes firefighters to potentially life-threatening chemicals, biological agents and particulates and can even pass on contaminants to the public.

Firefighters are already exposed to so much,” says chemical engineer Jeffrey Stull, “why would they want to increase exposure by wearing contaminated clothing?” The truth is sobering. Contaminated protective gear exposes firefighters to potentially life-threatening chemicals, biological agents and particulate matter, he says. If not dealt with properly, soiled protective gear can also pass on contaminants to the public at large.

Stull, president of International Personnel Protection Inc., has authored more than 100 articles, chapters and guides on the subject. Former head of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Hazardous Chemical Personnel Protection Project, Stull assisted the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) with development of NFPA 1851, a standard on the selection, care and maintenance of structural fire fighting protective ensembles. He is also the lead U.S. delegate for International Standards Organization Technical Committee 94/Subcommittee 13 on Protective Clothing.

The key to limiting a firefighter’s exposure to such hazards is proper decontamination of soiled gear, which after a fire, car accident or similar event can be laden with life-threatening chemicals, blood, body fluids or particulate matter.

Today’s structural fires involve a growing diversity of chemicals produced from burned roofs, insulation, carpets and paints, according to Stull, including inorganic and organic gasses like nitrogen dioxide and benzene; acid gases such as hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid and nitric acid; chlorinated compounds like vinyl chloride; hydrocarbons; polynuclear aromatic compounds; and metals such as cadmium and chromium. Contact with these chemicals can permeate into the fibers of protective fabrics and penetrate, or pass through fabric pores. “Chemicals that get into the clothing from either means can directly contact the wearer’s skin,” he adds.

In recent years, biological agents have become a growing concern for emergency responders, including firefighters, who come in contact with blood or body fluids. Among the most dangerous, according to Stull, are hepatitis B and C viruses and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or AIDS virus. The risk is real, he maintains, since “even minute droplets of blood are capable of carrying thousands of viruses.” Most protective clothing, he warns, readily absorbs blood, particularly after it has been worn for some time.

But it’s the particulates – ash, soot and solid matter – that cause gear to appear dirty. “Soot is little pieces of carbon that adsorb, or collect in condensed form, every hazardous chemical that comes out of a fire,” says Stull. “They’re magnets for chemicals.” Potentially harmful lead dust and asbestos are other examples of particulates that can cling to gear.

And, as more and more particles attach to protective gear and chemicals remain on clothing, that gear gradually loses its effectiveness – putting firefighters at increased risk. The apparel that’s designed to protect may then facilitate a dangerous event. “Soiled gear can reflect less radiant heat, become more flammable and even conduct electricity,” maintains Stull. “Dirty gear doesn’t protect as well as clean gear.”

Every day, firefighters are faced with properly decontaminating gear, so as not to expose themselves or others. That’s why the NFPA provides a set of guidelines for cleaning protective apparel – based in part on scientific studies – including one conducted by Stull for the U.S. Fire Administration. In it, he evaluated a variety of cleaning methods and their effects on decontamination and protective apparel integrity.

“Getting the right mix of water temperature, chemicals and rinses is critical to cleaning gear and protecting it from damage,” says Stull, who recommends departments wash gear in an industrial, front-load washer-extractor with high programmability. Agitating apparel using a home-style, top-load washer “creates wear and damages clothing over the long term,” Stull warns.

Joel Jorgensen, an industrial laundry equipment expert, agrees. Director of marketing and sales at Continental Girbau Inc., Jorgensen holds 10 years of experience in the laundry industry. He warns that a careful approach to cleaning gear is critical to proper decontamination and to maintaining the integrity of the protective fabric.

“A highly programmable washer-extractor is key to washing gear correctly,” Jorgensen says, “in order to avoid damage to the gear itself.” Fire departments should use washer-extractors offering programmable water temperatures and levels, extract speeds, multiple baths, and automatic chemical (detergent) injection. They should also be able to program multiple wash actions, cylinder rotation options, and wash time.

Protective gear, Jorgensen adds, should be cleaned according to NFPA 1851 and manufacturers’ guidelines – at the right water temperature and using correct detergents. A washer-extractor programmed to automatically inject the right type and quantities of detergents at the appropriate water temperature and level, will prevent inconsistent and damaging results. “Automatic injection is especially critical at fire departments where more than one firefighter handles the laundry,” Jorgensen says. “You just touch a button and the machine handles the rest. It means no one is going to throw the wrong quantity or type of chemicals – like bleach – in the load, which could damage the gear.”

Air drying gear, according to Stull, is among the best ways to decontaminate gear. “The drying of gear is important,” he says. “It allows clothing materials to off gas.” In other words, gear will continue to decontaminate during the air-drying process – a necessary step. “The best way to dry the gear is to hang it in a well-ventilated room with a slightly higher than ambient temperature of up to 105 degrees,” says Stull, who warns that use of a standard tumbler-dryer is degrading and damaging to protective fabrics.

Decontaminating gear seems a complicated process. But, according to Jorgensen, it doesn’t have to be. “Once the washer-extractor is properly programmed, it’s a piece of cake,” he says. Fire departments should seek out a reputable chemical supply company with a representative accustomed to programming washers for cleaning protective apparel.

In the past, dirty gear was the norm – a badge of courage, according to Stull. But, that trend is changing. Firefighter safety is now a fire department’s number one concern. Eliminating exposure to hazards by decontaminating gear is today, a priority.

“Not washing gear is bad,” says Stull. “It’s not healthy to be continually exposed to contaminants. No one knows if it takes two or three years of exposure to cause harm. This is a form of exposure that doesn’t need to happen.”

For a complete listing of NFPA 1851 guidelines, visit

Abbreviated NFPA 1851 Guidelines

Procedures for machine washing

2. Do not overload the machine

3. Pre treat if necessary

4. Fasten all closures, including pocket closures, hook and loop, snaps, zippers, and hooks.

5. Turn garment shells and liners inside out and place in a mesh laundry bag

6. Wash temperature not to exceed 105 degrees Fahrenheit

7. Add detergent

8. Run one complete cycle, rinsing at least twice

9. Dry the elements

10. Inspect and rewash if necessary

11. If the machine is to be used for other than protective ensemble elements rinse out machine by running while empty through a complete cycle with 120 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit

Air-drying procedure

2. Do not dry in direct sunlight

Haley Jorgensen is a frequent fire industry writer.

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