Nova Scotia

Halifax fire adopts additional precautions after chemicals linked to cancer found in gear

Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency is ramping up safety measures to protect firefighters from chemicals linked to cancer that have been found in the protective clothing they wear.

Department already takes several safety measures, but is looking at adding more

Bruce Lake, acting division chief and safety and compliance officer for Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency, says the department is taking several precautions to reduce the risks associated with the protective gear firefighters wear. Firefighter Patrick March is also shown in the photo. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency is ramping up safety measures to protect firefighters from chemicals linked to cancer that have been found in the protective clothing they wear.

Bruce Lake, acting division chief and safety compliance officer, said the gear is treated with specific chemicals to make the fabric more resistant to heat, water and oil. He said it's essential for firefighters to have strong gear, especially given the calls they respond to, which regularly include toxic chemicals and bodily fluids.

According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, recent research has found the gear contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), chemicals that have been linked to cancer. It suggests firefighters limit their exposure to the gear.

Lake said the department's joint occupational health and safety committee is reviewing the union's statement and is discussing additional practices it can adopt for added protection.

"We decontaminate the clothing we're wearing, the bunker gear," he said. "We bag the contaminated clothing for transport back to the station. We have wet wipes available to wipe down any exposed skin after the call is over.

After every call firefighters attend, their clothes are washed in an industrial washing machine. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

"When the firefighters return to the station, they clean any equipment used on the scene and clean out the apparatus cab's inside. They're also required to shower and change their uniform, and no gear is allowed in the station, living quarters or administrative areas."

Firefighter and station Capt. Kevin Guy said dirt and grime on a firefighter's gear are no longer seen as a badge of honour.

Fire gear is not allowed in lounging areas in the fire station. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

As well, he said the chemicals that burn in fires have become more toxic over the years.

"Years ago, firefighting was a dangerous profession, but now it's ultra-hazardous, and firefighters have amongst the highest rates of cancer of all occupations in Canada," said Guy.

"And again, it's because of all the synthetic materials and all the hydrocarbons that are out there, so we're taking notice."

Chijioke Emenike, an environmental toxicologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said PFAS are sometimes known as "forever" chemicals because they do not break down easily. That coupled with the nature of firefighting makes PFAS especially problematic for crews.

Firefighter and station Capt. Kevin Guy says the focus on safety has increased dramatically over the years. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

"They're in their gears, and when you sweat or for any reason your body temperature increases, your pores open up, and when your pores open up, it's subject to absorption of whatever it is on your skin, so that's one of the easiest ways I believe PFAS can get into the body," he said.

As Halifax fire works to decrease the risks associated with the profession, firefighter Patrick March said danger will always be part of the job.

"It's an inherent risk we're all willing to take to protect the public and everyone that needs our help," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anam Khan

Reporter

Anam Khan is a CBC News reporter based in Halifax. She can be reached at anam.khan@cbc.ca

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