August 30, 2022 / Kay Bechtold

The Monthly Weekly: The Hazards of Emergency Response

Editor’s note:The Monthly Weekly is an occasional feature that reviews the previous month’s news coverage from The Synergist Weekly newsletter.

Resources and reports published recently by researchers and federal agencies showcase the variety of hazards faced by emergency responders of all types—from firefighters to oil spill cleanup workers. When responding to incidents such as gas leaks, firefighters can be exposed to low oxygen levels or dangerous concentrations of explosive gases and vapors. Responding to structure fires exposes them to combustion products like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, metals, and particulates; diesel exhaust; and building materials such as asbestos. And wildland firefighters in some regions must contend with biological hazards like the Coccidioides fungus, which can cause the disease Valley Fever.

Other emergency responders face unique exposures while on the job. For example, oil spill cleanup workers are exposed to chemicals like benzene and toluene in crude oil, while law enforcement officers may encounter unusual objects during searches of property, homes, and vehicles that may cause sharps injuries. Here, SynergistNOW provides an overview of news related to hazards found in emergency response.

Firefighters’ use of multi-gas monitors. NIOSH recently published a safety advisory targeted to firefighters responding to natural gas and propane incidents. The new document, “Understanding Multi-Gas Monitor Readings – The Importance of Knowing Your Equipment,” includes recommendations for properly using multi-gas monitors and interpreting data collected by these devices.

Asthma symptoms among cleanup workers. Exposure to oil spill chemicals is associated with asthma and asthma symptoms among cleanup workers, according to researchers involved in an ongoing study led by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. An article published recently in the journal Environment International finds that workers involved in cleaning up the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill were 60 percent more likely to have been diagnosed with asthma or have experienced asthma symptoms between one and three years after the spill, compared to people who completed cleanup work safety training but did not participate in the operation.

Firefighting as a carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in July announced the classification of occupational exposure as a firefighter as a Group 1 carcinogen, the agency’s designation for agents that carry sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans. A working group of 25 international experts convened by IARC concluded that there is sufficient evidence for mesothelioma and bladder cancer associated with firefighters’ occupational exposures.

Sharps injuries among law enforcement officers. In July, NIOSH released a document intended to help law enforcement officers avoid work-related injuries caused by sharps, which are devices with points or edges that can puncture or cut skin. Sharps typically include needles, scalpels, and broken glass, but NIOSH’s document warns that more unusual objects, such as homemade tattooing devices, may also be classed as sharps.

Valley Fever among wildland firefighters. A recent outbreak of Valley Fever among wildland firefighters working in California highlights the importance of respiratory protection and training to better protect these workers, according to an article published by CDC in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Valley Fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is a disease caused by the inhalation of Coccidioides fungal spores, which are present in the soil of semiarid areas such as Arizona and California in the southwestern United States as well as parts of Mexico and Central and South America.

Do you have feedback on our news coverage? Please share your comments here or send an email to The Synergist.

Kay Bechtold

Kay Bechtold is managing editor of The Synergist.


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