Firefighters face a much higher risk of heart attacks when battling a blaze — up to 100 times the normal rate — and are more likely to be struck while performing less-strenuous tasks, like cleaning up debris from a fire. But heart attacks are not the only health threat plaguing firefighters — fire service personnel have a 200 percent greater risk of developing mesothelioma than the rest of the U.S. population. Until now, research has been unable to confirm why this is happening and how to stop it.

In a fire situation, when faced with fire and smoke, the latter is more dangerous. Many believe it is the extreme heat that will decrease survivability, when it’s actually the toxic gases in the thick, black smoke. Firefighting environments can be expected to contain high levels of these vapors even after the fire is out. Breathing these fumes without proper protective equipment may cause serious health effects.

Researchers hypothesize that one of the contributing factors to extended hazardous exposure to toxic gases lies in the equipment designed to keep firefighters safe during extreme temperatures — the personal protective equipment (PPE). The PPE, much like long hair at a bonfire, often carries the stench of smoke for an extended period of time. This phenomenon, where chemicals on a material are slowly emitted into the air, is known as off-gassing and may be harmful after repeated exposure.

Unlike your hair, however, firefighter gear can only be washed so many times before the material begins to break down — and it’s not cheap to replace. Researchers are looking at different decontamination processes, including brushing and rinsing, to find out what is practical, and most importantly, safe.

UL is participating in a study that combines the talents of fire service leaders to create a more comprehensive study of the physical, mental and environmental factors contributing to firefighter health. The Illinois Fire Service Institute provides expertise in cardiovascular strain, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) brings expertise in toxic exposure and UL’s Firefighter Safety Research Institute (FSRI) specializes in fire dynamics and behavior. For the first time, firefighters will have their health monitored while fighting a fire in a life-like scenario. This exploratory study hopes to better understand firefighters’ emotional and physical responses contributing to serious disease.

Researchers will burn a 1,500-square-foot home, almost every day for two weeks, while local firefighters extinguish the blaze. During the study, firefighters will undergo blood draws, skin swaps and urine samples before, during and after the burns to understand what is causing these chronic conditions in our firefighting personnel. After monitoring the firefighters for up to 12 hours, NIOSH hopes to discover why firefighters are presenting electrocardiogram abnormalities and coagulatory potential, indicative of heart disease and cancer. UL will control the heat, temperature and gases to pinpoint the most dangerous conditions for exposure to harmful substances.

Preliminary research outcomes are expected to be published and available to the public in September. Follow UL’s FSRI on Facebook for updates.