Understanding the Science of Particulate Blocking in Firefighting Undergarments

It is well known that the standard issue firefighting equipment worn by firefighters in the UK does little to prevent toxic carcinogens from reaching the skin, significantly increasing the risk of long-term and fatal health conditions within the profession. Given that a clear correlation between firefighters and cancer was established by researchers in 2022 and an estimated 15 million firefighters around the world are exposed to extremely harmful carcinogenic contaminants, more needs to be done to keep those who place their own lives at risk safe from harm.

This is precisely why we developed the Enduro Protect baselayer. The baselayer has been extensively proven in the field around the world to stop harmful toxins, including smoke particles and forever chemicals, from reaching the skin. In this article, we will explain why particulate blocking is so important and just how effective our products are in protecting the long-term health of firefighters.

The new challenge – forever chemicals

Much has been said in the media about the growing problem of forever chemicals ‘Forever chemicals’ are man-made chemical compounds that do not break down within the environment or in our bodies. The most well-known type of forever chemicals within our environment called ‘per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances’ or PFAS, are resistant to water, grease, and heat. PFAS are incredibly robust due to their strong carbon-fluorine bond and are currently used in the Firefighter Turnout gear.

Once ingested or absorbed into the body, PFAS can cause a wide range of health problems, including cancers, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, liver damage, asthma, and allergies. In mothers and children, PFAS are known to cause decreased fertility, newborn death, and serious birth defects. Thankfully, some PFAS, including PFOS and PFOA, are now banned due to their known adverse health impacts, but they remain at high levels in the environment.

Firefighters are also particularly vulnerable to a type of PFAS called ‘aqueous film-forming foam’, or AFFF. AFFF was introduced in 1979 as an effective fire suppressant and is still widely used in fire departments and airports due to its strong compounds. The risks of AFFF have been known for some time. So much so that the Pentagon in the United States has banned the use of fire foam containing PFAS in its military establishments.
Keeping the level of harmful exposure as low as possible

Key to understanding the science of filtration and how to keep firefighters protected from harmful substances is the idea that a substance must reach and exceed a certain dose threshold before it becomes toxic. This was discovered by Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), a Swiss physician, alchemist, lay theologian, and philosopher of the German Renaissance who is credited as the ‘father of toxicology’. He famously coined the phrase, “the dose makes the poison”. Take, for example, the seemingly harmless spice nutmeg. In higher doses, nutmeg is highly toxic and can lead to tachycardia, nausea, vomiting, agitation and hallucinations. However, in small amounts, the toxicity can be adequately processed and metabolised by our bodies. Another such toxin is cyanide, which is contained in apples. The human body has enzymes which are capable of metabolising cyanide into non-toxic by-products. As a result, a certain amount of cyanide must be ingested before it becomes toxic.

The same is true of the contaminants encountered by firefighters. In minute doses, there may be little or no risk to health, hence why protecting the skin as much as possible is paramount.

Firefighter Equipment and Protection from airborne carcinogens and forever chemicals

Graph displaying results from test

Enduro’s Protect baselayer prevents harmful carcinogens and forever chemicals such as PFAS from reaching the skin in the first place. Recent laboratory tests show that the Enduro Protect baselayer is between 98.34 and 99.99% effective at filtering particulates of 2.5 microns or above.
According to a study by the toxicology department of Hertfordshire University, the filtration efficiency of FFP3 masks dips to below 50% or even 0% in some cases, depending on the size of the particulate. By comparison, the researchers showed that the performance of the Enduro Protect baselayer is much more consistent across all micron sizes compared to FFP3 masks and is highest for particulate sizes of 2.5 microns. The study involved the use of a robot in a smoke chamber wearing an Enduro Protect baselayer, with samples being taken from the chest, head, arms, and legs.

An added focus on prevention – Awareness, prevent, DECON

All firefighters are trained on the health protection principles of awareness and DECON. DECON includes the measures to be taken before the incident, at the incident, at the station, and when going home to prevent toxic contamination. But while DECON provides an excellent model for derisking exposure to toxic contaminants released during fires, it doesn’t, however, prevent toxic contaminants from getting onto the body in the first place; rather, it is about cleaning the contaminants that have already reached the skin. This is problematic because once the toxins have touched the skin, even if only for a short time, they may have already been absorbed into the body before they are cleaned off.

At Enduro Protect, we believe that a third principle should be added to awareness and DECON; that of ‘prevent’. Using our baselayer as a form of primary prevention means that firefighters are automatically protected from harm in all situations, and the amount of decontamination necessary is considerably reduced. This simple measure can make the difference between suffering a serious and life-threatening illness in later life due to short-term exposure to carcinogens in the workplace and remaining cancer-free.

Final words

The statistic that firefighters are four times more likely to get cancer in their lifetime is a wake-up call to the whole profession. With 2024 being the 200-year anniversary of the first fire brigade, we should turn our attention to cancer prevention. Let’s make 2024 the year we protect those that are protecting us. Of course, that works starts now with budgeting.
Enduro Protect offers a long-lasting, cost-effective, comfortable, and highly effective way to protect the long-term health of firefighters around the globe. What is more important, firefighters who use Enduro Protect baselayers are statistically no more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the general population. Together, we can stop occupational cancer with firefighters.

To discuss any points made in this article, please call the Enduro Protect team on 01235 514290

Organisations working with Enduro Protect

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