Evaluation of Dermal Exposure to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Fire Fighters
The Health Hazard Evaluation Program carried out a study at a fire service training facility to
determine if airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other aromatic hydrocarbons
generated during live fire training contaminate and pass through the skin of fire fighters.
What We Did
● In each of two rounds, we evaluated three controlled structure burns (one per day). Five fire fighters participated in each burn.
● We sampled PAHs, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and particulate in air.
● We collected breath and urine samples before and after each burn. We analyzed the breath samples for aromatic hydrocarbons and the
urine samples for PAH breakdown products.
● We took wipe samples on fire fighters’ skin to measure PAH contamination before and right after each burn.
● We measured VOCs released from turnout gear before and after each burn.
● We tested the SCBA equipment to make sure it worked properly.
What We Found
● We detected possible cancer-causing PAHs and VOCs in air.
● Some PAH air levels were above occupational exposure limits during overhaul.
● All VOC air levels were below occupational exposure limits during overhaul.
● Some VOCs were released from the fire fighters’ gear after the fire response. The air levels of these compounds were well below occupational exposure limits.
● The PAH levels on fire fighters’ necks were higher right after the burns than before. PAHs were not found on other areas of fire fighters’ skin.
● Levels of benzene, an aromatic hydrocarbon, in fire fighters’ breath were higher right after the burns than before. However, fire fighters did not have elevated levels of benzene breakdown products in their urine.
● In the first round of our study, levels of PAH breakdown products were higher in urine samples collected 3 hours after the burns than in samples collected before the burns.
● The levels of PAHs and benzene in fire fighters’ bodies were similar to levels in occupational groups with low exposures to these compounds.
● Most fire fighters wore properly working SCBA. The PAHs and benzene likely entered their bodies through their skin.
What We Recommend
● Require fire fighters to wear full protective ensembles, including SCBA, during knockdown
and overhaul for all fire responses. Provide fire fighters with long hoods that are unlikely to
● Provide as much natural ventilation as possible to burned structures before starting
● Remove SCBA and hood last when removing gear. Take off gear before entering a
● Store gear on the outside of the apparatus when riding back to the station.
● Wash hands immediately and shower as soon as possible after a fire response.