NIOSH Studies Firefighters' Dermal Exposure to Polycyclic Hydrocarbons

Published February 13, 2014

Results from a pilot study conducted by the NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) Program show that firefighters wearing full protective ensembles during controlled burns in live fire training absorb polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other aromatic hydrocarbons, such as benzene, into their bodies. According to researchers, the PAHs and aromatic hydrocarbons most likely entered firefighters’ bodies through their skin. Since wipe samples found PAHs only on firefighters’ necks after fire exposure, researchers concluded that the neck is the primary site of exposure and absorption, as firefighters’ protective hoods provide a lower level of skin protection.

According to the NIOSH report, aromatic hydrocarbons could also have been inhaled while firefighters were doffing their gear due to possible off-gassing from contaminated clothing and equipment.

The report includes several recommendations for protecting firefighters against these exposures. The recommendations include having firefighters wear long hoods that are unlikely to come untucked and providing as much natural ventilation as possible to burned structures before starting investigations. NIOSH also recommends that firefighters remove their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and hood last when doffing gear.

In addition, the report proposes several ideas for additional research based on these findings, which include:

  • assess inhalation exposures to combustion products for personnel at fire scenes who are not directly involved in fire suppression
  • study the effect of hood designs and materials on dermal exposure and absorption of combustion products
  • investigate the impact of different methods of decontaminating gear on removing PAHs

For more information on the study, read the full report.