Fire Debris, Ash and Soot After House Fire

Contamination Risk for Fire Investigators: Toxic Fire Debris Increases Chance of Exposure

The De-Wipe team were in attendance at the latest UK Association of Fire Investigators (UK-AFI) Fire Investigator Training Conference, held in Solihull on January 27th and 28th. Delegates who came to chat to us about our after fire decontamination wipes comprised of fire investigation personnel from a wealth of backgrounds and job roles; individuals from the UK fire service, insurance industry, law enforcement and forensic scientists were all interested in discovering how effective decontamination can reduce their risk of occupational cancer.

Even with such an experienced range of delegates, it is apparent that many fire investigators are yet to have proper decontamination policy and procedures in place. It appears that knowledge of after fire decontamination among fire investigators is significantly behind firefighters and first responders. This gap in knowledge is addressed by International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI)  chairman Jeff Pauley in an article published by American news agency FOX 9 in July 2019. In said article, titled After the Fire: Arson investigators battle cancer risks after years of duty, Jeff states that for many years the prevalent thought among fire investigators was “once the fire is out everything is good.” This belief may owe in part to research into the dangers of toxic soot on scene up-to-now being primarily focused on firefighters.

In reality, fire investigators face a couple of specific risks that must be acknowledged:

  1. Fire investigators attend more fires than firefighters.
  2. Fire investigators will spend longer at the scene of a fire when compared to firefighters.

Therefore, in light of these two risks we can surmise simply that exposure to harmful carcinogenic compounds is increased for fire investigators. Jeff Pauley underlines this statement in the FOX 9 article: “the cancer risk for fire investigators is even greater than it is for firefighters.”

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE FIRE GOES OUT?

The passing of time does not reduce the level of toxic carcinogens present in soot and ash. A study by Organtini et al. analysed the concentration of harmful compounds in fire debris and found elevated levels of man-made flame-retardants PBDFs and PXDFs in ash that coated the surface of debris. Highlighted in the UK Government’s Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life publication is the discovery of dust contaminated with carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons inside a flat located 160m away from Grenfell Tower. The dust sample was analysed 17 months after the tragic event.

Again – cancer-causing compounds will linger long after the fire has been extinguished; any toxins that settle on surfaces are waiting to be disturbed.

The study by Organtini et al. goes on to indicate that one of the main routes of exposure to these compounds for fire investigators is “through contact exposure of touching contaminated pieces of equipment and the subsequent transport of these materials.”

The IAAI’s Fire Investigator Health and Safety Best Practices white paper states that whilst research regarding fire investigator health hasn’t kept pace with firefighters, some information can be brought over from that environment. For instance, the requirement to decontaminate on-scene – to remove the contaminants from skin before they have a chance to absorb – is a crucial process and one that first responders are adopting successfully. One of the main pathways for fire investigators to be exposed to carcinogens is when they have removed or are removing their fire investigator PPE. In response, the IAAI white paper outlines the process one must take to decontaminate tools and equipment by using water and cleaning solution. However, there is no mention of using wipes to remove toxins from skin. 

Cleaning solution and water – as mentioned in the white paper – has potential to be an effective method of cleansing the skin; it’s certainly more effective than using baby wipes. However, the effectiveness of De-Wipe’s after fire decontamination wipes at removing the most harmful toxins from skin has been scientifically tested and proven – it is developed specifically for this purpose and we know it works.

WIPE IT OFF, DON’T TAKE IT HOME

In their Best Practices white paper, the IAAI’s Health and Safety Committee acknowledge that improving the health of fire investigators and thus reducing the risk of fire investigator cancer requires a “fundamental culture change.” Perhaps then, our mantra wipe it off, don’t take it home is as pertinent a statement for fire investigators as it is for first responders.

When chatting to a fire investigating member of the UK-AFI at the conference in Solihull, they mentioned using the same car to attend investigations as for the family run-around – unbeknownst to them exposing their family to these harmful contaminants. A few simple wipes of their skin and equipment will reduce the risk of exposure for them and their loved ones.

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We’ve summarised the major points from our scientific study and compiled them into a handy PDF – click the button below to download.

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