Decon done right-Inside and Out


It’s Cancer Awareness Month for firefighters and health stats are showing discouraging reports that cancer has moved into the number one cause of firefighter line of duty deaths, with cardiovascular diseases moving just slightly down to a close second.  We need more than a month for awareness, we need real change.

Protection – Then and Now

Modern advancement in personal protective equipment has evolved dramatically along with the increase in toxic exposure specifically due to modernization of building materials, pesticides, and environmental toxins.  The building fires of yesterday (i.e wood, brick, stone, metals) have been replaced with cheaper building materials made from vinyl and other synthetic materials that burn up to 8 times faster.  Not only does this leave less time to suppress the fire and get out, it also creates a poisonous toxic “soup” of chemicals that firefighters are exposed to routinely.



 While protective gear has advanced significantly, it’s the gear that is now being carefully studied for its possible contribution to cancers and adverse health due to the toxic materials that are used in protective gear.  Even protecting firefighters has become a probable health hazard as they are surrounded in potential toxins in turnout gear. Where’s the escape?  When firefighters are operating in toxic fire ground conditions, and quite nearly encased in a potentially toxic suit, then you add heat… that’s conceivably destructive to health.


The discovery of potential toxic materials in turnout gear has been researched most recently, with new reports that chemicals (such as fluorinated chemicals like PFAS) used as water and oil repellants in the lining of gear are possibly being absorbed into skin during the intense heat and exertion.

While most recent studies focus primarily on the exogenenous (outer) protection, what’s protecting you INSIDE when you’re protected on the outside?  Where do the toxins come from, and how do we DECON outside and inside?

Exogenous Toxins

Chemicals that are made or contracted outside of your body

  • Can harm your cells if they are ingested, inhaled, or absorbed into your bloodstream.
  • Includes substances like household and industrial/institutional cleaners, pesticides.
  • Food additives like aspartame, preservatives and colourants.
  • Recreational and prescription drugs that carry warnings of liver damage.
  • Cosmetics, body products and personal care products.

Endogenous Toxins

Toxins  produced inside of your body as a result of your body’s functioning

  • Waste products from normal metabolic activities – carbon dioxide, urea, and lactic acid.
  • Imbalanced GUT FLORA (dysbiosis) is a main contributor to endogenous toxins.
  • These toxins deliver a steady stream of toxins accompanied by bacteria, fungi, and possible parasites (including viruses) that can penetrate the intestinal walls and emit toxins into the blood stream and affect cells.


Exposure to normal metabolic toxins from regular physical duty, as well as now chemical substances used in protective coatings and layerings in turnout gear, firefighters are facing a double hit when it comes times to toxin exposures



Asphyxiant Gases such as CO, CO2, HCN and low oxygen Heart Attack, displacement of normal oxygen concentration in breathing air, tissue hypoxia, cancer.
Acidic Gases that are irritants such as COF, HCl, HBr, SO2, NOx, COF2, H3PO4, polymers Chronic lung diseases, fatal lung diseases, difficulty swallowing, (hormonal) endocrine disruptors cancer.
Organic Irritants such as formaldehydes, phenols, styrene, acrolein Sources from textiles, particleboard, old insulation materials, furnishings, pressed wood products, adhesives and paints.

Cancer, respiratory irritation, hormonal  (endocrine) disruptors.

Particulates (ultrafine particles specifically), asbestos, carbon fibres, ceramics and inhaled mineral fibres, heavy metals, polymers Long Term health effects with repeat exposure

Deep lung penetration on  inhalation, fibrosis, fatal lung diseases, heavy metal toxicity and neurological diseases, endocrine disruptors. central nervous system diseases, cancer.

PCB’s, PAH’s, PFAS, furans, dioxins, aldehydes, benzenes and isocyanates Toxicity by inhalation, dermal absorption and oral ingestion.  Long Term health effects with repeat exposure and post-fire activity, cancer.
Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) Source from man-made materials, furnishings, plastics, insulation, appliances.

Extremely toxic and potentially lethal.   Short term exposure, hard to detect smell. dermal/eye absorption.  Headaches, drowsiness, tremors, arrhythmia (delayed up to 3 weeks post-fire), cancer, respiratory depression and cardiovascular collapse.*

Groundbreaking Clean Up

Much groundbreaking research and reporting is taking place to emphasize and practice decontamination within the fire services with many innovative, progressive and even impressive ways to decon on site.  Everything from portable showers, used gear containment procedures, out-of-house gear cleaning and storage, as well as good old hosing down while still on scene is providing both health benefits and valuable data towards learning more about getting in and getting out while keeping toxins at bay.


Protection begins INSIDE then OUT

Progress with gross decon post-fire, and new occupational changes towards protection and prevention are rapidly being adopted into new policies for mitigating chemical exposures.  This is excellent for decontamination on the outside, but what is protecting and “cleaning” up the inside – inside the body, where these toxins can bioaccumulate and wreak havoc on health?


How do you clean a firefighter?

Water:  Nature’s Perfect Cleanser

Water puts out fire.  Think of it this way when you imagine what water can do for inflammation in the body.  Inflammation is the underlying cause of so much disease, including cancer – imagine it’s like the body on fire.  Exposure to dangerous chemicals on the fire ground and especially during overhaul are particularly concerning for their contribution towards inflammation.  Water reduces lactic acid buildup, as well as prostaglandins and histamines.  Prostaglandins and histamines are natural body substances and produced as mediators in a natural immune response, but when in excess, can contribute to increased inflammation.  Water lubricates joints, increasing synovial fluid to cushion joints, as well as helping the kidneys filter toxins out of the body.

Dehydration is a major cause of health concerns in firefighters.  High heat conditions, physical exertion and increased respiration, exponentially increased perspiration in turnout gear all cause massive water loss in the body.  Dehydration is specifically linked to cardiovascular incidents, as well as chronic fatigue, kidney disorders, gout, joint injury, dizziness, chronic headaches, arthritic conditions, musculoskeletal injuries, electrolyte imbalance, backache and lowered immunity.

Increased physical exertion also creates higher CO2 levels in the body, which in turn creates a lowered pH (acidic) lending towards inflammation and acidosis.  Prostaglandins (inflammatory compounds in the body) are increased with adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) and histamine production increases with stress.  While these are supposed to help with the immune response, when prostaglandins and histamines are increased with stress and dehydration, they become enemies of the immune response.  Excess histamine production can lead symptoms of everything from allergies to hypotension, tachycardia, vasoconstriction, as well skin conditions, and excessive prostaglandin release is directly involved in the formation of various cancerous tumours.

Proper hydration is one of the largest factors in detoxification and flushing of toxins and chemicals from the  body.  The average 220 pound adult male firefighter would require upwards of 3 litres of water per day for adequate hydration on duty, with the average 150 pound female firefighter requiring at least 2-2.5 litres for optimal detoxification and rehydration.  That may actually increase for both with extreme heat and physical exertion.  Electrolytes (not NEON coloured waters loaded with high fructose corn syrup, but real water and electrolytes) should be added to the post-fire detox protocol to maintain proper electrolyte balance, reduce nausea, and restore energy.  Hands down, nothing beats water at detoxifying and restoring the body.


Nourish:  Nutrients are building blocks of health

Proper nutrition, with an emphasis on coloured foods rich in antioxidants, lean protein and good fats are unequalled for restoring at the cellular level.  Proteins are the building blocks of cells and help repair and replace damaged cells.  The colours of fresh fruits and vegetables contain a plethora of antioxidants that scrub out oxidative stress caused by toxic exposure, overexertion and stress.  Good fats act as insulators for nerves and help transmit hormonal signals from cell to cell to repair damaged cells due to toxicity.  Think of the endocrine system as the COMMUNICATORS of your department.  Hormonal communication is absolutely essential for brain-to-body instruction and they never get a rest.  Ever.  Protein aids in creating the structure of hormones which continually try to regulate and harmonize with our body.

Nutrition, while a multi-billion dollar industry, is still poorly understood.  Yet it remains one of the most vitally important defences against toxin exposure and an essential factor against removing and repairing the damage of “forever chemicals” that can linger and accumulate in the body, creating the environment for disease.  What society has adopted as a “nutritious diet” across the board is gravely concerning and clearly lacking in vital nutrients – and statistics are there to prove it.  More education needs to address this issue, specifically for combating the discouraging disease statistics among firefighters.  Sadly, less than 5% of research funding goes towards prevention.  Most focus on diseases once they have manifested, but here lies the need for change.

Nutrition is often swept to the side and missed amongst the cascades of data, research and information about what can cause diseases like cancer.  Yet, it is within the terrain of the body, the microbiome,  digestion, nerves, circadian rhythm, detoxification pathways and hormonal signals that we fight disease – and these pathways respond to nutrients.


Exercise:  Move it out

Exercise is one of the best ways to feel better, lose weight, improve metabolism and provides for functional movement for firefighters to perform duties.  Exercise also reduces stress and the negative effects of stress hormones, improves oxygenation in the body, and improves circulation.  Moving your body also moves  your lymphatic system (your body has more lymph fluid than blood) which is the body’s junk removal system.  Flowing just a few millimetres under the skin, lymph picks up cellular toxins and removes them through digestive elimination, urination, sweat, and breathing.


Brush it off

Dry brushing the skin is a fantastic way to improve lymphatic flow (a natural bristle brush used to gently brush dry skin upwards towards the heart) is excellent as is massage.  If you’re not the type to go to a massage therapist, consider self-massage upwards of legs, arms, feet, neck and shoulders as a method to move lymphatic fluid.  Use a nutrient rich oil (like olive, avocado, coconut) and add a little essential oils like peppermint, wintergreen, frankincense, sandalwood, cedarwood, lavender, and cinnamon to detoxify and help remove toxins.  I like oils…love them really, because of their ability to detoxify and combat bacteria, fungi and yeasts, viruses and parasites which are major contributing factors to the development of many cancers.  Oils also have healing properties and promote cellular repair and aid the immune system.

Don’t use chemicals to wash away toxins…

Toxic ingredients in common personal care products are linked to many factors that disrupt the endocrine system.  Don’t use toxins to shower and bathe off more toxins.  That’s like using filthy water to wash the trucks.   Most commercial bath products, cosmetics, and skin and body cleansers are loaded with chemicals to “clean and deodorize”, yet they contain heavy metals, propylene glycol, toluenes, surfactants, preservatives, fluorides, phthalates, parabens, triclosans, foaming agents (laureth and lauryl sulfates), antimicrobials… the list is endless.  Hundreds of these chemicals are used daily by firefighters believing they are washing off chemicals – when in reality, they are driving even more into their skin.  Skin absorbs most toxins in less than 60 seconds.  Try that on a hot firefighter!


GO Natural

Consider using natural based soaps, (I like something like Dr. Bronner’s Soaps), and mixing it with some natural ingredients like baking soda, apple cider vinegars, activated charcoal (comes as a fine powder and can be added to natural soaps), witch hazel, epsom salts, essential oils such as those from the pine and spruce family, mint family, citrus, cedars, myrrh, lavender, rose, tea tree and eucalyptus.  Don’t worry, you won’t smell like a flowery meadow with these oils…they blend well with your own skin and natural oils to create a signature scent that is not made of synthetics.  Don’t like oils… add a few fresh chopped herbs, a little lemon juice, a few mint leaves chopped up, or some brewed and chilled herbal tea.  These are all excellent added to a large bottle of natural soap and help to clean the skin naturally.  The whole idea is to get clean, without adding more toxins and chemicals that just burden the body with more chemicals.


Steam and Chill

Sauna and steam baths are also terrific for sweating, relaxation, opening pores, warming, and reducing stress.  Sauna for firefighters gets a bad rap sometimes for the added stress they can present to the cardiovascular system – however, the benefits are best achieved off duty and not right after a strenuous shift.   Always hydrate if you use any kind of sauna therapy.  Also, infrared sauna may provide more health benefits used for shorter periods of time rather than sweating profusely in a traditional steam sauna.   No sauna, no worries.  A steaming hot shower followed by a quick burst of a 30-60 second blast of cool water improves circulation, improves your mood, reduces inflammation, boosts immunity, rushes oxygen-rich red blood cells throughout the body, and helps reduce pain.  Consider a hot bath with epsom salts if sauna is not a preferred or available option.  The magnesium and salts in the bath are fantastic to draw out toxins, relax, relieve muscle tension and stress.  Again, always hydrate in a hot bath.


Moving Forward Naturally

Exciting new research and practices are being implemented across fire departments world-wide to combat the negative effects of toxicity and chemicals encountered on the job.  While cleaning up the environment of the station and training facilities and implementing new fire ground decon protocols are essential to reducing chemical toxicity, cleaning the firefighter on the inside is then absolutely vital to thrive.  Health begins within.

Stay Healthy!