NIOSH Study Looks at Possible Health Risks in Fire Stations

When firefighters respond to a fire, their gear and other personal protective equipment protect them from exposure to dangerous chemicals. What protects them between calls, however, when they simply are sleeping or eating in the fire station?

On the surface, the fire station seems like a safe environment, but it may contain hidden risks, according to a new NIOSH-funded study at Harvard with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Boston Fire Department, and Boston Firefighters Union Local 718.

The study started after the city’s deputy fire chief expressed concern that local firefighters were diagnosed with and dying from cancer at high rates. Of particular concern is diesel exhaust from fire trucks housed in truck bays attached to the fire station’s living quarters where firefighters eat and sleep during a shift. In some older fire stations, including some built in the 1800s still in use in Boston, these truck bays are next to the kitchen.

In addition, firefighters returning from a call and parking the fire truck in the bay may let the truck idle briefly while attaching tubing to vent the truck’s exhaust outdoors. This routine task may occur frequently throughout a shift and involve being close to hazardous diesel exhaust each time.

Working with the Boston Fire Department, the scientists tested air samples in three older fire stations in Boston and compared them to air samples from a new station in nearby Arlington, Massachusetts. They also interviewed firefighters in the stations. Preliminary results identified fire trucks as a possible source of poor air quality in the stations.

They also showed that installing washing machines and using them for gear could help reduce exposure to chemicals. When the study is completed, the investigators plan to use the findings to develop future research and, ultimately, interventions to protect firefighters.

In related research, last summer NIOSH and other federal and university partners released the results of a separate 5-year study of 30,000 firefighters. The study found an increased risk of certain types of cancer among firefighters, compared to other people. This increased risk may stem from exposure to toxic substances released in a fire when plastic and other synthetic materials burn.